Is Gluten-Free The Way To Be?
By: Jamison Hill
The term “gluten-free” is being used as a very lucrative business term lately. A visit to any grocery store in the country will leave you surrounded by label after label dedicated to gluten-free advertising. The gluten-free market has brought in billions of dollars annually, the last several years and continues to increase. Despite the rapid increase in popularity, many consumers remain in the dark as to exactly what gluten-free actually means.
What Are Gluten-Free Foods?
Gluten-free is just that, food products free of any gluten, which is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. In the last five years, gluten-free fare has risen to sky-rocketing popularity. Since 2006, the sales of gluten-free products have risen over 30 percent, according to market research. These products include just about anything a carb-lover might crave: cookies, cakes, breads, even nasal spray!
Why is Gluten-Free so Popular?
The rise in popularity of gluten-free products is not by accident. Many people now devote their entire diet to avoiding the oh-so tasty gluten, by cutting out many enjoyable, carb-filled tasty treats. Who would want to put themselves through that, you ask? The gluten-free craze seems to be occupied by three categories of people. There are those that change their diet due to allergies, which is involuntary. Others, do so because they believe it to benefit athletic performance. Lastly, some go gluten-free simply because they think it is healthier.
Gluten-Free = Allergy-Free?
Allergic reactions to gluten can range from mild sensitivity to the serious autoimmune celiac disease (CD). Regardless of one’s sensitivity to gluten, an allergic reaction is reason enough to stay away. Especially, if one experiences symptoms like abdominal pain, prolonged fatigue or diarrhea. According to a study done at the University of Maryland’s Celiac Research Center, one in 133 people have the disease and some do not even know it. Peter Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University says, “It is estimated that less than 5% of those with the disease are currently diagnosed.”
Celiac disease is manageable, despite the torment it can inflict on the body; symptoms can be avoided or lessened by switching to a gluten free diet. The View's Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s book The G-Free Diet outlines her personal struggle with celiac disease and useful strategies for others experiencing her same fate. “I was at war with my own body, and it soon became obvious that I was losing each and every battle,” Hasselbeck says. Her book is a great example on how people can live and ultimately thrive with celiac disease.
Gluten and Athletic Performance
In Matthew Kadney, M.S., R.D.’s recent article Wheat Index, he explores the effects of a gluten free diet on endurance athletes. He asks, “Can runners without CD or GI [gluten intolerance] expect any health or performance benefits from giving up gluten? It’s a question athletes are asking.” Kadey goes on to mention the Garmin-Transitions pro cycling team, which abides by a gluten free diet and claims doing so helps their performance. But does it really?
The Garmin-Transitions team claims it aids them with inflammation and digestion, whether it improves their athletic performance is uncertain. And, as Kadey even mentions, “There is no evidence whatsoever that gluten-free eating offers any performance benefits over a balanced diet that contains gluten.” Further more, celiac expert Lara Field, M.S. R.D., from the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center says, “The theory that removing wheat from your diet is going to ease inflammation and digestion and speed exercise recovery just doesn’t hold up for most.” Although both Kadney and Field doubt gluten free gives any athletic edge, examples of athletes excelling on the diet have been becoming more and more frequent. Former Super Bowl champ Drew Brees and the record-holding Garmin-Transitions cyclists swear by it. There is thought, however, that most athletes that excel at high levels, would do so with or without gluten in their diet.
Is Gluten Free Best?
There is a rapidly growing number of people who, although not athletes or GI, feel that a gluten free diet is the healthiest nutritional choice. They, like gluten free athletes, also believe that saying, “bye-bye” to the wheat protein will relieve inflammation and ease digestion. Ultimately, they think it helps one's body function better. On the flip side, however, many experts do not support this theory. “There is no strong scientific evidence to support the assertion that avoiding gluten leads to benefits for the general population,” explains Tricia Thompson, M.S. R.D. Even Field cautions that adopting a gluten free diet can leave some with a lack of important vitamins and minerals.
Whether you are an athlete, have GI or just believe gluten is unhealthy, there are alternatives that can serve as substitutes to gluten, such as Quinoa, Buckwheat, and Amaranth. Still, the question remains: Is gluten-free the way to be?
As you can see there are strong opinions on both sides and depending on the circumstances (celiac disease), some are more considerable than others. Whatever your circumstances, eliminating gluten from your diet is a choice that you should consider carefully.