Talk about demonized — poor gluten. Gluten is blamed for many things — weight gain, slow metabolism, digestive problems… Most of them are not true.
“But wait,” you say, “my friend lost a bunch of weight by giving up gluten!” Maybe she did — but it wasn’t the absence of gluten. Maybe she was eating less food overall, maybe she started working out, maybe she started making healthier choices all around.
The truth is that most people will lose some weight in the first stages of a diet, only because it’s in the forefront of their minds and hasn’t become tedious yet. It takes a while to fail. But I digress — back to gluten.
There is nothing about gluten that makes you sick, makes you fat, causes autism, etc., etc., etc. Anybody who tells you any different is trying to sell you something. There is a very small segment of the population who needs to avoid gluten, but we’ll get to that. First, let’s get on the same page about what gluten is.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and related grains. That’s it, just a protein. It’s what provides the
structure and shape. You can see it at work in a slice of bread — see the air pockets? The air is gas released by yeast, and the “walls” of each bubble are made of gluten. In fact, the whole purpose of kneading is to stretch and strengthen the gluten fibers so they can more effectively trap the yeast farts inside the bread to make a fluffier loaf.
People with celiac disease (about 1% of the population) can’t eat gluten because their immune system sees it as an invader. An inflammatory reaction ensues, and tremendous pain and (possibly permanent) intestinal damage results. As the intestines get damaged, they lose the ability to absorb nutrients from food, so the sufferer begins to lose weight despite eating normally. Going gluten-free stops the process, and in most cases returns normal intestinal function. In other words, giving up gluten helps these people GAIN weight. Ha. Tell that to your friend!
There is a condition called gluten sensitivity that affects a wider swath of the population, but it’s difficult to pin down. Instead of digestive pain, it manifests as headaches, fatigue and other general yuckiness — much different from celiac disease. People with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity don’t incur any kind of intestinal damage from the gluten, it just makes them feel yucky. It’s a big range, though — some people can’t take it at all, while others can tolerate varying amounts up to a particular threshold. It’s really very individual. Many of these people quickly learn and abide by their personal threshold, but some must give up gluten entirely.
As for the rest of us, gluten poses no threat whatsoever. Feel free to give it up if you want, but any celiac sufferer can expound upon the inconvenience of the whole thing. Gluten-free food are not lower in calories or fat — in many cases they’re higher. They’re not healthier, they’re just made with a different grain.
Now if you want to give grains up altogether, that’s a different story. I have, and I don’t miss ‘em. But that’s a post for another day.