‘Gluten-free’ can be code for healthier habits

By Karen Podorefsky

(Alex Abboud/Flickr)
(Alex Abboud/Flickr)

Labels indicating what is in your food are everywhere – written in restaurant menus, on packaging and even at the University of Massachusetts Dining Commons. Many Americans have become more conscious, even infatuated, about what they eat for multiple reasons: allergies, to watch their weight, to have a special diet and beyond.

I’ve grown up aware of nut allergies, but one craze I have noticed recently is the trend toward gluten-free eating. Have an upset stomach? Many turn to this diet as a first resort to resolve the issue. But the seemingly positive effects of this diet – or as some would call it, way of life – are prompting Americans whose gluten health is just fine to switch up their normal eating routines.

There is at least some legitimacy to the diet. Julie Jargon writes in The Wall Street Journal, “About two million to three million Americans, less than 1 percent of the population, suffer from that hereditary condition, known as celiac disease. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness says research shows another 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, experiencing discomfort without the intestinal damage.”

But what about the other 99 percent? Whatever their issue is, some claim after trying the new trend, “Oh, I feel so much better” or “I have much more energy.” I wonder if they actually feel this way or if all the hype is causing them to believe it is so.

Oprah Winfrey stopped eating gluten, among other foods, for a 21-day cleanse and said that it made her feel better, according to Jargon in another Wall Street Journal article. She tried it just to try it, not because she was having stomach or health problems.

I would believe the claimed results, depending on how Oprah or someone else goes about it. To reap the weight-loss benefits most are going for, you must cut out or reduce carbohydrate intake.

There are many gluten-free products. Replacing your gluten-filled unhealthy foods with the gluten-free version does not help you lose weight or become healthier. No, you don’t want to do that. It’s actually often worse because there are less vitamins and more sugar. When a body doesn’t need sugar or extra carbs, it converts them to fat, resulting in weight gain. There are still just as many carbohydrates in gluten-free replacement products.

Of course, if someone actually suffers from celiac disease or gluten intolerance and wants to maintain their previous food consumption lifestyle, this argument does not apply and actually helps because they don’t feel deprived of foods they enjoy.

A low-carb, or generally healthier diet would be a more appropriate label for someone not replacing what he or she previously ate with gluten-free labeled foods. If a person really wants to “be healthier” to whatever degree he or she is aiming for, it is most likely that they cut out the carbo-loaded foods categorized as unhealthy but taste delicious, like cookies and pastries. Of course someone will feel better if they don’t eat that.

But I question whether people actually feel better mentally rather than physically when eating gluten-free. It makes sense that eating healthier with more fresh foods, protein and carb-less foods will make your body feel better because you are treating it better, consuming less food that isn’t good for you. But, if someone limits unhealthy food intake, I would think that they would feel more confident and all around better about themselves because they know they are doing their body a favor by not indulging.

For example, chocolate cake almost always satisfies someone for the moment they eat it because it tastes so great. However, the fulfillment of saying you will go a week without eating the treat and accomplishing the goal proves more satisfying. Indulging at that moment compared to feeling accomplished after a longer period of time with self control is a basic example of short term versus long term pleasure Americans battle regularly.

Call it what you want – a gluten-free diet or a low-carb diet. In my opinion, going gluten-free can be an outlet for people to more easily tell others they are on a diet or a way to accept it themselves, as weight-loss diets often have a bad connotation.

I find our society to be too judgmental. There is a high likelihood that people are embarrassed to say they are on a diet because it is shows they are insecure about their bodies or lifestyle. Now, people who are not negatively affected by gluten have a more legitimate health-concern claim, rather than just wanting to live a healthier lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle, however, should be something to be proud about.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]