Is Gluten Free for Me?

When I went gluten free 15 years ago, it was nearly impossible to shop at grocery stores, eat safely at restaurants or sustain life while traveling. Today, gluten-free options are popping up in supermarkets, at convenience stores and even at pizza and pasta restaurants. But why are so many people jumping on the bandwagon?

If you have celiac disease, this one is easy. Gluten flattens the villi in your small intestine, causing severe malabsorption of nutrients. The accompanying abdominal pain and discomfort, combined often times with blistering rashes, mood swings and memory problems, can make each day a living hell. A gluten-free diet can give you back your life.

However, only about 1% of our population has actually been diagnosed with this condition. The majority of people who are going gluten-free these days don’t have celiac disease or even a sensitivity to wheat. They are simply seeking better health. But is gluten-free really the way to go?

One advantage used to be that simply by eliminating foods with gluten, you automatically ousted much of the junk from your diet. Nearly all “normal” prepared and packaged snacks and meals contain at least trace amounts of wheat. In fact, if you have celiac disease, it’s not even safe to eat gluten-free foods that have been prepared in the same kitchen with other foods that aren’t. The tiniest trace amount can trigger symptoms.

Unfortunately, as the gluten-free market increases, so do the “healthy” junk products. Manufacturers can dump corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, food coloring and any other additives they want into foods and still label them gluten free. Virtue in the grocery store has become a virtual reality defined by label perception. Today, you’ll find jelly beans and potato chips in the health food aisle, proudly wearing “gluten free!!!” banners. If you don’t read the fine print, you can still get suckered by the same people who brought you Twinkies.

If you visit a site such as, you will find a long list of possible benefits from a gluten-free diet. It can, for instance, benefit your brain. Those with sensitivities can suffer from headaches, depression and fatigue from eating gluten. For these same people, a restricted diet will help to reduce inflammation, since malabsorption of nutrients can lead to chronic inflammation in the GI tract. Gluten-free celiac patients experience less bloating and a reduction of the painful gas that’s a by-product of undigested food. There have also been a number of autoimmune disorders recently associated with gluten. Celiac disease itself is an autoimmune disease, and gluten increases the risk of developing other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes and MS.

However, all of these claims are somewhat misleading. If you are not sensitive to gluten, giving it up probably won’t change anything at all. In fact, virtually all of the benefits of a gluten-free diet are only beneficial to those whose health is suffering because of an intolerance. If you suspect celiac disease, don’t assume. Ask your doctor to order a tissue transglutaminase (tTG) test for a definite diagnosis. If your symptoms have another source, going gluten free may only delay getting the treatment you really need.

On one hand, it’s a wonderful thing that there are so many gluten-free options available now. Along with greater variety, the availability gives social acceptance to a disorder that was once little understood. But there are serious pitfalls that come with commercial availability. Gluten-free foods can be significantly more expensive, and the ingredients are sometimes no healthier than those in Hostess Ho Hos. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted gluten-free muffins and cookies, I had to bake my own, and I could choose whole grain flours and fruit juice sweeteners. Today’s commercially available brands are often loaded with sugar and made with refined flours, largely because the general public palate, blunted by years of flavor-jacked junk, demands it. In addition, gluten-free foods are usually fluffed with Xanthan gum, which can cause gas and bloating.

There’s no single diet that is optimal for everyone. If you do have celiac disease or a sensitivity to wheat and gluten, eliminating these foods from your diet is a life-altering choice for the better. But if you have no such problem, choosing a sugary gluten-free cookie over turkey on whole wheat just to keep up with this latest health fad is patently absurd. Whatever food best fuels your machine, nutritional whole foods are always a better choice than processed crap.

And don’t forget: It may say gluten free on the label, but you ain’t eatin’ the label. Take a closer look, and find out what else is lurking inside. It may surprise you.

Sidebar: Going Out Gluten-Free

People who have celiac disease really can’t eat anywhere that prepares gluten-containing food, which makes eating out a treacherous prospect. They must choose restaurants that are entirely gluten free. But for people who have less intense gluten sensitivities, gluten-free menu items are now easy to find. Chinese or Indian restaurants that serve rice dishes are good choices. Check out the delicious and affordable Tokyo, Thai Star and India. Also peruse the menus at Waterman Grille, Nick’s on Broadway and Los Andes. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, take a look at their menu online or call ahead. Most will have at least a couple of gluten-free options.

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