Gluten-Free Diets: Facts or Fad?

By Liesel Sumpter

These days it seems like everyone and their mom is following a gluten-free diet.  In the last 10 years, the word “gluten” has gained mass popularity while puzzling consumers about whether they should or shouldn’t eat gluten.

What’s the right answer? Should everyone be on a gluten-free diet? Is eating gluten-free healthier?

The short answer is, “Not so much…”

Let’s dive into why.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley composed of two classes of proteins called gliadin and glutenin. These proteins give baked-goods the shape and texture we all know and love. When gluten is removed from baked-goods, they lose their well-known qualities.

To make gluten-free products, food scientists and manufacturers replace the structural components provided by gluten to create satisfying products. Gluten-free foods are typically made with rice flour, corn flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, or a blend of various flours.

However, many foods are naturally gluten-free…

  • Rice (both brown and white)
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Popcorn
  • Potatoes
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat and seafood
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Butter
  • Olive oil
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Juice

And the list goes on! To really know whether a food contains gluten, you must get familiar with different sources of gluten and read the ingredients list for a food or recipe.

Who needs to eat gluten-free?

Fact: There are certain medical conditions that require a gluten-free diet. People with these conditions aren’t just choosing to eat gluten-free foods because they want to, but because the need to.

Celiac disease occurs when gluten proteins trigger an immune reaction that prevents the absorption of nutrients over time. For some people, even a miniscule amount of gluten can trigger a painful flare-up that lasts for days. Celiac disease requires avoiding all gluten and possible cross-contaminants (foods that may have contacted gluten during the handling process).

Other medically recognized reasons for eating gluten-free are non-celiac gluten sensitivities, wheat allergies, and gluten ataxia. People with a gluten sensitivity may not have an autoimmune reaction when they eat gluten, but likely experience similar symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, headache, “foggy brain,” diarrhea, constipation, or rash. For these people, avoiding gluten improves their wellbeing.

But don’t celebrities say eating gluten-free is healthy?

Fad: Those magazines in the check-out lane at the grocery store saying you need to eat gluten-free probably aren’t backed by research. Celebrities, blogs, and maybe even your friends will tell you that eating less gluten can help with weight loss, increased energy, and better health. But according to Mayo Clinic, “there is little clinical evidence about the health benefits of a gluten-free diet in the general population.” So, what’s up?

Currently there is not enough research to support claims about gluten-free diets resulting in guaranteed weight loss, overall improved health, better digestion, or amazing athletic performance.

Gluten itself does not increase or decrease factors related to health. It’s more important to consider the total nutrient content of a food.

Processed foods like cookies, cakes, crackers, and breads often contain gluten from flours or additives.  The real problem is the added sugar, fat, and sodium that processed foods contain – not the gluten. It makes sense that cutting out processed foods containing gluten leads to health benefits… because the extra calories from sugar and fat have been decreased!

Avoiding gluten by removing processed foods from your diet is only helpful if more nutrient-dense foods are added instead. By eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats instead of processed foods, you will naturally see more health benefits!

Long story short, it’s not the gluten’s fault…

“Eating gluten-free is good for some people and unnecessary for others. So what’s the best way to eat if I don’t have a medical reason to avoid gluten?”

Identify if there are any forms of gluten that negatively impact your health. You might find that a specific food causes you discomfort, but not every single food containing gluten. Maybe you find out you have a gluten sensitivity or that gluten doesn’t bother you at all. That’s fine!

Talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist and they will likely tell you not to fret over gluten, just focus on a well-rounded, balanced diet. Aim to consume a wide variety of colorful, real food. Key food groups to pay attention to are fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

Eat well, enjoy your favorite foods in moderation, and don’t fear gluten.

Where are gluten-free options at TCU?

If you are experiencing a medically diagnosed gluten intolerance or sensitivity, finding safe places to eat on TCU’s campus can be crucial to your health.

Go-to gluten-free spots on campus include Magnolias Zero 7, which is free of the 7 most common allergens (soy, egg, wheat, gluten, shellfish, dairy, and treenuts/peanuts). Market Square offers gluten-free items next to the sandwich station. The Press in King Family Commons Building also carries many gluten-free snacks. The key is to ask someone in a white coat if you have any questions or trying to find something specific.

Always keep in mind that there are many foods that are naturally free of gluten. Whether you’re selecting a meal at Bistro Burnett, The Press, Caliente, Chick-fil-A or another retail location, read the label. Depending on the severity of one’s gluten intolerance, it’s worth checking into what products are sold that don’t contain gluten.

As always, contact Shelley Roaten, TCU’s campus dietitian, with questions or concerns. s.roaten@tcu.edu

Summing it all up…

And that’s the long answer about diets free of gluten. The truth is, there is no “right” answer. What works well for one person may not sit well with someone else. And someone with a medical diagnosis may need something else entirely!

Once again, it comes down to learning about what works well for you. Focus on consuming a balanced diet with variety and moderation.

And remember, gluten is not the enemy.

Sources:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/gluten-free-diet/art-20048530

Duyff, R. L. (2012). American Dietetic Association complete food and nutrition guide. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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