The Gluten-free Diet — Fad or Necessity?

WRITTEN BY: Carly Crompton

 Note: This is part of our library of resources on Food. Learn more about dietary recommendations from nutritionists and foodies alike on our Food page!

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 1 in 5 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.

Gluten is a family of proteins found in cereal grains like wheat, spelt, rye, barley and sometimes oats (depending on manufacturing). The gluten proteins are rich in Glutamine and Proline: two amino acids that resist digestion by gastrointestinal enzymes. So, large Proline and Glutamine rich peptides can accumulate in the small intestine. Celiac’s Disease, which currently affects about 1% 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 the accumulation of Proline and Glutamine rich peptides triggers two different immune responses causing destruction of the intestinal lining resulting in the many different symptoms of Celiac’s Disease. 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% of people with Type 1 also have Celiac’s. There is a lot of debate whether or not all people with Type 1 diabetes should be tested for Celiac’s Disease upon diagnosis – findings are currently mixed, but if you do have Celiac’s disease, a gluten-free diet is necessary for management.

What about those who do not have Celiac’s Disease? A lot of individuals without Celiac’s Disease are cutting Gluten out of their diets often arguing that this makes them feel better. This condition has been coined “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” but in this case it is not confirmed that gluten is the problem. Additionally, some cut out gluten for a “healthier” diet. A lot of people who who remove gluten claim to feel better, often less lethargic. This feeling of wellness is likely due to the absence of refined sugars and carbs. Gluten-free foods, however, are typically made of potato or rice starch (refined grains) and so eating them means missing out of whole grains and the important nutrients they provide, like 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. I am a proponent of cutting out refined grains, but continuing to eat whole grains!

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. This is a great gluten-free blog for some cooking at home!

Read Fasting with Type 1 Diabetes by Carly Crompton.

Carly Crompton

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.