Gluten-Free for Health: Fad or Fact?

One of my local grocery stores, part of a large chain, recently redid part of their frozen food and grocery sections to accommodate all gluten-free products. So, what’s all the fuss about? Is it just another dietary craze or are there potential health benefits to be gained? Here’s what you need to know.

Posted on | Donna Cardillo, RN, MA | Comments ()

One of my local grocery stores, part of a large chain, recently redid part of their frozen food and grocery sections to accommodate all gluten-free products. So, what’s all the fuss about? Is it just another dietary craze or are there potential health benefits to be gained? Here’s what you need to know. 

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in the kernel of wheat, barley and rye. It’s something that most of us have been consuming all of our lives – especially since gluten in one form or another is in so many products including anything with wheat flour in it or wheat-based products such as soy sauce, malt vinegar and so much more!

Why Would Anyone Want/Need to Avoid It?

There are several reasons why people might avoid gluten. In those with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the lining of the small intestine and can lead to serious digestive problems and malnutrition, consuming gluten irritates and damages their bowel.  These folks (some of whom are children) must be very careful and not even consume gluten-free food that has been manufactured in a plant where gluten ingredients are also processed.

Another group that may avoid gluten or at least wheat and its derivatives are those with gluten or wheat sensitivity. Symptoms of this can include sneezing, unexplained runny nose, abdominal bloating, hives, diarrhea, headaches and more. (These symptoms can also be caused by other ailments; consult your primary health-care provider rather than self-diagnosing.) Chelsea Clinton reportedly served gluten-free cake at her wedding because she has gluten sensitivity.

Then there is a long-standing belief that gluten consumption can aggravate existing autoimmune illnesses such as eczema, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and others. This doesn’t necessarily mean that gluten consumption causes the disease but rather that it may inflame these conditions or contribute to flare-ups.

There is also evidence that gluten contributes to overall inflammation in the body, known to cause other illnesses (heart disease, cancer, etc.), joint pain, fatigue, depression and more in otherwise healthy people. [Note: There are many other factors that contribute to inflammation as well.]

Do I Need to Give Up Pasta, Bread and Cereal to Go Gluten-free?

No. Fortunately, there are now many products available that are good-tasting substitutes for gluten-based products. Although once only found in health food stores, gluten-free products have gone mainstream and can now be found in most grocery stores. And while not all gluten-free products have the same taste, texture and consistency of their counterparts, you can experiment to find ones that you like. I’ve managed to find a gluten-free pasta that is so good, I serve it to guests. They are shocked when I tell them it is made from rice flour rather than wheat flour. Even my Italian husband who was raised on pasta enjoys it!

But beware: Some gluten-free products have more sugar or fat than similar gluten products, so read labels, and be aware of serving sizes.

The one thing that is hard to find is a good-tasting gluten-free bread with a consistency that holds up for toasting, sandwich-making, and my favorite – French toast. But I have managed to find one brand that is wheat-free although not gluten-free. And if you’re a beer drinker, know that many beers are made from wheat and wheat products. But don’t fret; some beers are naturally wheat-free and gluten-free! Do an Internet search to find them. [Note: Everything gluten-free is wheat-free, but something that is wheat-free is not necessarily gluten-free as it may contain other forms of gluten.]  

What’s the Biggest Challenge to Going Gluten-free?

Eating out can get tricky because you never know what’s been added to a dish. But it’s easy enough to ask if any wheat, barley or rye were used, including soy sauce. (Gluten-free soy sauce is available).

Another challenge is learning all the foods and food additives that may contain wheat or gluten such as: some food starch, couscous, spelt, bran, brewer’s yeast and more!

The good news is that because so many people have decided to, or need to, go gluten-free or wheat-free, more and more manufacturers, food stores and eating establishments are now providing excellent gluten-free products/offerings and labeling them as such.

Parting Words

There’s lots of information about gluten on the Internet and in the bookstores, so do your own research. Additionally, there are tests that can be done to diagnose Celiac disease, body inflammation and allergies so consult a health-care expert for more advice and information.

Blog written by Donna Cardillo, RN, MA
Donna Cardillo is a registered nurse with more than 30 years of diverse health-care experience. Donna is known as “Dear...