The truth about gluten

Gluten is not what most make it out to be


(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

By Ally Littlefield, Collegian Correspondent

Many dieting trends and fads seem to offer fast, real results without the backing of concrete science. Recently, going gluten-free has been on the rise among people (without celiac disease) who want to lose weight or cut out unhealthy foods.

There are many common misconceptions about what exactly gluten is, where it’s found and whether it is healthy to exclude it from a diet or not. To provide a little background: gluten is the common name for proteins that are found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. These four common ingredients are found in breads, baked goods, pasta, cereals, sauces, food coloring, beer, dressing and much more.

Usually when people think of gluten, they often associate it with carbohydrates in general, which is only partially correct. Most foods containing gluten are a great source of carbohydrates; however, not all sources of carbohydrate contain gluten. This is because the dreaded “carb” people often refer to is not just found in bread and pasta.

High sources of carbohydrates are not only found in grain foods, but also in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and sugary foods and drinks. While there are other sources of carbohydrates, grains are the most effective way to incorporate sufficient amounts of carbohydrates into a diet.

Many people like to follow what is coined the “gluten free diet”—excluding breads, pastas, cereals and many other products that contain gluten. The sole purpose of this diet regiment is to steer clear of high carbohydrate-based foods and focus on eating a cleaner diet.

However, some people follow a gluten-free diet because they have a condition called celiac disease. This is a common autoimmune disease where the ingestion of gluten causes an inflammation and damage in the small intestines, ultimately leading to a decrease in the absorption of nutrients. Unless a person has celiac disease, gluten doesn’t have to be considered unhealthy. Yes, eating a package of Oreos (which contains gluten) isn’t the best diet choice, but it’s important to include healthy, carbohydrate-based foods into a diet. This can include whole-grain products, starches (like potatoes), oatmeal and popcorn. To ensure a product is a good source of whole grain, look for the Whole Grain Stamp when at the grocery store.

Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients the body needs, even when a person is trying to lose weight. They supply our muscles and brain with fuel and are the main source of energy burned during exercise. Carbohydrates provide this energy to cells by breaking down into monosaccharides (the simplest form of carbohydrate) in the body and entering the bloodstream, thus maintaining a person’s normal blood sugar. If someone isn’t getting enough carbohydrates, this can result in low blood sugar, a condition called hypoglycemia. Side effects of hypoglycemia are hunger, shakiness, dizziness, confusion, difficulty speaking and anxiety or weakness.

Can being gluten-free help you lose weight?

While it can help a person be more conscious of what they eat, it is not always an effective way to lose weight. Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are essential to maintaining a healthy weight—provided you are consuming whole-grain products, fruits and vegetables to help keep your mind and body sharp. When consuming a low-carb diet, people often feel tired and irritable. This diet is simply unsustainable, often leading to immediate weight-gain when the diet has concluded. Trying to avoid something as abundant as gluten can be really hard and can lead to food binges and unhealthy habits. Not to mention, modified “gluten free” foods are not always healthier options.

For example, a gluten free cupcake will still contain the same amount of sugar, if not more, to compensate for taste. If you believe a gluten free diet is still for you, there are definitely alternatives to include healthy grains into your diet: Gluten free breads, popcorn, rice cakes, quinoa and corn products are all sources of these healthy grains.

It’s important to remember gluten plays a healthy and important role in your diet, despite new diet trends. Eating a balanced diet of grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins is the easiest way to fuel and nourish your body while maintaining the look you want long term.

Ally Littlefield can be reached at [email protected]