The Gluten-free Diet—Fad or Necessity?


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The most valuable lesson I learned as a nutrition major at UC Berkeley was the importance of educating myself about the numerous, and often fleeting, diet trends. This is by no means an easy task. Most marketing surrounding food and nutrients is really confusing and it doesn’t help when friends and colleagues start promoting different things that work for them. I, personally, hate telling people what they should or shouldn’t eat. I believe that it is a very personal decision and that no one besides yourself can really tell you or understand how a food affects your own body. That being said, being educated about what you are putting into your body and understanding some of the science behind nutrition recommendations/being able to call out false/bad marketing is really important.

The gluten-free diet has been on the rise for the past few years and currently about one in five Americans follow it. In my experience, there is still a lot of confusion around this diet, its purpose and its benefits. In fact, many people don’t even know what gluten is. Just ask Jimmy Kimmel! So here are some of the basics about what gluten is and how it might affect your body.

So… what is gluten?

Gluten is a family of proteins found in cereal grains like wheat, spelt, rye, barley and sometimes oats (depending on manufacturing). When mixed with water, these gluten proteins create a web-like structure; it’s what makes dough sticky and holds it together. The gluten proteins are rich in Glutamine and Proline: two amino acids that can resist digestion by gastrointestinal enzymes and build up in the digestive tract.

Celiac disease and gluten

Celiac’s Disease, an autoimmune disease that affects about 1 percent of the population, is characterized by flat intestinal lining and generalized malabsorption of nutrients. There is a lot of biochemistry behind this that I won’t bore you with, but basically for people with celiac, the accumulation of Proline and Glutamine rich peptides triggers two different immune responses causing destruction of the intestinal lining. People with type 1 diabetes are at a higher risk of developing celiac’s disease because it is also an autoimmune disease. In fact, 5-10 percent of people with type 1 also have celiac’s.

Why are people without celiac cutting out gluten?

What about those who do not have celiac’s disease? A lot of individuals without celiac’s disease are cutting gluten because they believe it makes them feel better. This condition has been coined “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” but this sensitivity has not been scientifically confirmed to exist. The feeling of wellness could be due to cutting out gluten, or it could be because they are cutting out more processed or otherwise unhealthy foods.

The cost of gluten-free

Some gluten-free foods use potato or rice starch instead of whole grains, which has less important nutrients such as fiber, iron, zinc and folate. Additionally, gluten-free foods contain a lot more fat. One of gluten’s functions in baked goods is to hold it together; fat is a good substitute for this. Cutting out gluten all together might be great to avoid those refined sugars, but substituting it with gluten-free foods is not always the best options. The “Gluten Free” label has little to do with nutritional value, it is much more of a marketing campaign that persuades us shoppers to think this is a healthier food.

Going gluten-free

If you have decided to go gluten free, whether it be because you were diagnosed with celiac disease or you believe you are gluten-sensitive, there are many adjustments that you can make to your diet. In general, be mindful of processed foods; it’s impossible to predict whether or not these foods have gluten. Below is a list of processed foods that are particularly likely to contain gluten:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Pasta
  • Beer
  • Dough and anything made from dough
  • Flour
  • Grains (spelt, barley, rye, flour)
  • Sauces, including soy sauce
  • Dressing

In general, replacing processed foods with whole foods, as long as they are not whole foods that naturally have gluten, is good practice in going gluten free. This switch naturally has health benefits.

Everyone’s body works differently and so if cutting out gluten has worked for you, continue on with it! There are plenty of ways to maintain a healthy diet. Make sure you substitute those whole grains with something nutrient-dense—some good alternatives are brown and wild rice and quinoa. Avoid gluten-free foods that contain lots of refined sugars and chemical sounding ingredients.

Read Fasting with Type 1 Diabetes by Carly Crompton.

WRITTEN BY Carly Crompton, POSTED 10/25/16, UPDATED 10/03/22

Carly is a Bay Area native and recent Cal Graduate. At UC Berkeley she studied nutrition with a focus in physiology and metabolism following her passion for increasing awareness in nutrition and reconnecting with food. She is excited to work with an organization committed to taking action and changing the conversation around chronic disease. In her free time, Carly loves cooking, being outdoors and bringing home succulents.