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Banish the Breadbasket?

Making Sense of “Gluten Free”



To eat or not to eat? That is the question consumers are strugling with when deciding whether to adopt a gluten-free diet or to eat bread and pasta.

It’s hard to think of parting with foods like pizza, baguettes, and muffins, but lots of us are doing just that. Over 18 million Americans who do not have celiac disease—nearly six percent of the population—are still tossing out their traditional white-flour pastas and burger buns, and declaring that they feel better when they eliminate gluten.

So is this avoidance of our favorite doughy treats just a craze? After all, celebrities like Lady Gaga and athletes like tennis star Novak Djokovic have embraced the idea, catapulting the concept of gluten as Public Enemy Number One into the limelight. The food industry has also jumped on the trend, with new gluten-free foods and sales that will reach $24 billion by 2020. But is there really a need to banish the breadbasket?

As a nutritionist, I often ask my clients what they mean by “I feel better,” after they avoid gluten. The response is usually, “My stomach doesn’t feel as heavy after a meal,” or simply, “I’m not sure, but I think it’s the right thing to do.” Dr. Ken Mauer, MD, at Gastroenterology Associates of Fairfield County confirms that there is truth to the “feel better” response: “Even those without celiac disease can experience common symptoms of gluten intolerance which range from diarrhea, constipation, and bloating to joint pain, fatigue, headache, and dermatitis.” And that’s the short list.

These symptoms, typical of gluten sensitivity, may be due to the fact that today we eat four times more gluten than our grandparents did. Back in the 1950s scientists started crossbreeding the protein gluten with wheat to make it a hardier plant in an effort to feed more of the population. Gluten gives foods that irresistible texture we have come to know and love (in Latin, the word gluten means “glue”). But indulging in too much of that chewiness leads to an overexposure to gluten and, in turn, intestinal discomfort.

You know how everyone loves New York bagels? The reason they are the best in the country isn’t because of the highly rated New York City water. It’s because New York bagels have the highest levels of barley malt, aka gluten. 

But gluten may not be the only culprit. After all, gluten’s constant companion is sugar, which has been linked to diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, obesity, cancer, and many other health conditions. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sugar lies hidden in many foods that we consume above and beyond the usual candies and desserts, masked with at least 56 different names on ingredient labels.

Dr. Mauer notes that, along with gluten, “it’s not unusual to see other food intolerances such as lactose or fructose intolerance—both are alternate names for sugar.” Sugar can also temporarily raise serotonin and dopamine levels, two hormones that trigger the pleasure centers of the brain. So we eat snacks like Oreos—sometimes impulsively—and ask questions later. That’s one of the reasons why it’s incredibly hard for us to stay away from breads and simple carbohydrates. To our primitive brains, sugar feels a lot like happiness.

I am not suggesting that anyone banish happiness from his or her life. However, making changes to your diet could put you on the road to more long-term happiness. Keep in mind that a gluten-free diet is no easy task if you’re accustomed to the American diet, which is chockful of wheat, barley, and rye. Many foods that are labeled gluten-free, also have higher levels of refined carbohydrates and are less nutritious, so don’t expect weight loss. Dr. Mauer suggests including a multivitamin in your daily regimen, as gluten-free foods are often not fortified with needed vitamins and minerals.

So whether you have joined the gluten-free movement because your stomach needs a tune-up or because you just think it’s a healthier option, I say, go for it. However, try it in conjunction with a clean food diet, one that eliminates all carbohydrates except for fruits and vegetables. For the more courageous, eliminate dairy as well, a common culprit in gastrointestinal distress. Stick to this for four weeks and keep a diary of what you have eaten, rating yourself on how you feel physically each day (use categories like headaches, fatigue, bloating, etc., and rate from one to ten). After four weeks, gradually reintroduce one category of food at a time, for instance, gluten-free grains first, then gluten-containing foods, then dairy. Reintroduce a new category every four days. A cleaner diet will reveal not only a gluten sensitivity but some other food sensitivities as well, and put you on a path toward better overall health.


Where Gluten Lurks

Most people are familiar with the common list of gluten-containing foods like wheat (spelt, kamut, triticale) barley, and rye. But take a look at other places where gluten may show up on your plate (from the Celiac Disease Foundation):

  • Oats—which do not intrinsically contain gluten but are often contaminated during manufacture and processing
  • Sauces that use wheat flour as a thickener
  • Brewers yeast
  • Soy sauce
  • ​Energy bars
  • Beer or any malt beverage
  • Candy 
  • Restaurant eggs—some put wheat flour in scrambled eggs
  • Soups, especially cream-based

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