Before jumping on the gluten free bandwagon, though, a bit of background is in order.
Gluten is a protein found primarily in whole-grain wheat, rye and barley. When you eat whole grain bread or barley soup, gluten provides the body with protein to build and repair muscle tissue or to manufacture other body proteins like hormones and enzymes. Gluten protein provides structure to baked goods, and can be isolated from grains and formed into a vegetarian meat substitute known as seitan.
Many people feel that they can’t handle gluten because they feel bloated or gassy when they eat grains – and because they feel less bloated when they stop eating gluten-rich foods. And they note that they often lose weight when they cut out the gluten, which could be reason for the sudden enthusiasm for gluten free foods.
Because gluten lurks not only in grain foods but is also used as a stabilizer and thickener in lots of processed foods like salad dressings, frozen yogurt, and processed cold cuts, it could be that people feel better after they go gluten-free, whether they’re intolerant or not. After all, they are cutting out fast foods and processed foods and possibly replacing starchy foods with healthy fruits and veggies, which would promote weight loss.
Some people truly have gluten intolerance and do have to follow a strict gluten-free diet, but the numbers are relatively small. It has been estimated that only about 1 percent of the population has the most severe form, known as celiac disease.
Those who are truly intolerant to gluten have to spend lots of time reading labels. They must avoid wheat, rye, and barley, as well as wheat “cousins” kamut and spelt. And products made from these grains, such as bulgur, couscous, wheat germ, semolina, durum, and bran, are forbidden, too. Gluten might also be disguised on a label as vegetable protein, modified food starch or malt flavoring, and it’s sometimes found in soy sauce and grain-based alcohol.
True gluten intolerance is relatively rare, but one argument for going gluten-free is that it’s a way to improve the diet, especially if refined grains have been the source of most of the gluten. Replacing starch-heavy pastas, cakes, cookies, white bread, and pretzels with gluten-free whole grains like quinoa or millet is good advice for everyone.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.