These days you can find the “gluten-free” label on just about everything – even food not usually associated with gluten. Browse your local market and you’ll find the label on things like yogurt, peanut butter and even meat products! What gives? Has gluten-free labeling become nothing more than latest and greatest marketing ploy? Not necessarily….
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and related products. However, it is found in countless foods, including breads, pastas, cereals, beers, and processed foods that contain these grains. Wheat and other grains containing gluten are often used as fillers in processed foods because it’s cheap. Commonly used in meat products, such as hot dogs and fast food “hamburger” meat, gluten-based fillers can also be found in prepared mixes, such as rice mixes, soy sauce and even medications. In most instances if the ingredient label indicates a product contains modified food starch, it’s a safe bet it contains gluten. As consumers become more and more health conscious, more and more companies have begun to include gluten-free labels on food products.
What are the Health Risks?
For the one percent of people in the US with celiac disease, and the more than half million men and women in the US with other digestive diseases such as Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis, avoiding gluten is very important. Celiac disease is an intestinal autoimmune disorder in which nutrients aren’t able to be absorbed in the small intestine that causes a host of problems — from abdominal pain and bloating, to nausea and diarrhea. While Chron’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease associated with inflammation of the entire digestive tract-lining, ulcerative colitis only affects the colon and rectum (large intestines). Though its cause remains unknown, researchers believe genetics, environment, and deficient immune responses may be causal factors.
However, you don’t have to have celiac disease or other chronic digestive diseases to have adverse reactions to gluten. For others with general gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten can have a number of health benefits. For nearly 80 percent of the population, gluten is a major contributor to inflammation in the body, and inflammation is a major contributor to all kinds of diseases and health conditions. Chronic inflammation is the source of cancer, obesity, and heart disease, alike. It has also been linked to diabetes, arthritis, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Signs of Gluten Sensitivity.
Signs of gluten sensitivity include dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy skin rash known as the skin version of celiac; eczema; chronic fatigue; joint pain; fibromyalgia; lactose intolerance; inability to absorb vitamins and nutrients; gastrointestinal distress, such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, abdominal pain; and headaches, including migraines.
Health Benefits Reported from a Gluten-Free Diet.
According to research there are many benefits of maintaining a gluten free diet. A gluten free diet has been shown to improve cholesterol levels; improved immune function; reduce inflammation; improve iron deficiency anemia; and reduce joint and muscle pain, including pain associated with arthritis. Studies have also shown that a gluten free diet may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and decrease symptoms associated with brain disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, mood disorders, and epilepsy. A gluten-free diet has also been linked to other health benefits, such as:
- improving peripheral neuropathy, which causes tingling in hands and feet
- lowering the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis
- reducing risk of heart disease and cancer
- unexplained infertility and other reproductive health problems
- Weight gain or weight loss
While a gluten-free diet has been linked to a number of health benefits, the scientific evidence is limited and additional studies must be done. Some experts say the focus on gluten-free diets may be having a placebo effect; consumers think it’s important and may report that they feel better avoiding gluten. But this may simply be because avoiding gluten means eating fewer processed foods and simple carbohydrates and making healthier food choices overall — eating more whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This could also be the reason so many people report losing weight on a gluten-free diet. Thus, healthier options may be the real reason, not the lack of gluten.
Not all gluten-free foods are necessarily healthier. Gluten-free foods may still be high in sugar and calories, so it’s important to read food labels carefully. For example, an apple and a gluten-free muffin are both gluten-free, but their nutritional values are very different. And many gluten-free foods are sold at a premium, resulting in gluten-free dieters choosing more naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, beans, and legumes. Nuts and most dairy products are also naturally gluten-free.
Use Common Sense
The gluten-free trend is often compared to the popularity of “fat-free” foods of years past. Because a food item was labeled “fat free” or “low fat,” consumers often mistakenly believed they could enjoy as much fat-free food as they wanted without negative effects. But these low-fat or no-fat options were often high in sugar and simple carbohydrates and calories, resulting in not-so-healthy results.
Until more scientific research is done on gluten sensitivity, listen to your own body. You may not need scientific studies to tell you that you feel better eliminating gluten from your diet. The bottom line is that a gluten-free diet may be healthier not necessarily because of eliminating gluten, but the associated changes in making healthier food choices. And that’s bound to be beneficial.
Jody Amato is a freelance writer and editor and regular contributor to Eating in the Real with Renée TM. To find out more about Jody visit her website at jodyedits.com.
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