A phrase that seems to be getting used around social gatherings lately is, "don't worry, there's no gluten in that," as they point to something I'm putting on my plate that I would never suspect had gluten in it in the first place, and frankly don't care if it does. Some how, being gluten-free has become the "it" healthy thing, and it is driving me a little bit crazy. I am here to defend my bread.
Let me first get two things out of the way:
1 - If you suffer from celiac disease or truly do have a gluten intolerance, this article is not aimed at you. I sympathize with your need to carefully watch what you eat lest you end up incredibly sick. I worked with a woman a few years ago who was celiac, and she could tell you that going gluten-free was not a trendy fit-in-her-jeans diet. Quite the opposite - she had to cut out gluten in order to be able to put on some pounds to get her to a healthy weight. She had no idea she was celiac and with University came a pretty typical University student diet of pizza and beer. She was constantly physically sick between throwing up and diarrhea, so much so that she could not keep any weight on. It got so severe that her doctor accused her of being anorexic, and suggested she seek out help. Eventually, testing proved she was not starving herself - she was Celiac. For celiac's, whenever gluten is consumed it triggers an immune response that damages the intestines and prevents absorption of vital nutrients.
2 - Let's define gluten. What it is NOT: gasoline, rat poison, tar, bleach, or any other toxic chemical. So why are we treating it like it is? What gluten IS: gluten is composed of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin for those who like to be ready for trivia quizzes), and is found not just in wheat - which includes durum, spelt, and kamut to name a few, but also in rye, barley, and triticale (a cross of rye and wheat). It is naturally occurring, and gluten is what helps food maintain its shape, and also gives it that chewy texture we love so much.
So with those two pieces out of the way, here are my top 5 reasons why I'll be keeping gluten on the table.
Reason #1: As someone who is not celiac nor do I have a gluten intolerance, cutting out gluten will do nothing for me.
Let me guess - some of you are already raising your hand saying, "but I went gluten free and I lost weight and I feel soooo much better." My questions to you are: What else did you cut out? How else did you change your eating habits? Did you actually cut out all sources of gluten, or just the ones you have on the naughty list, like bread or cereal? There are a few explanations as to why you likely lost weight, and that it wasn't actually the lack of gluten at all:
a) There was simply less food for you to eat when you adopted a gluten-free lifestyle. Particularly if you eat out a lot, your options are limited and so in turn you'll take in less calories overall every day simply because you skipped the bruschetta with bread, and the breaded deep-fried cheese sticks. It had nothing to do with the fact it was gluten you cut out, but the pure and simple math of a reduced intake of calories. Less calories, over time, means weight loss. [Sidenote: there is a balancing point where eventually too few calories per day will stunt weight loss and lead to fat retention - another blog topic for another day]. There are much better ways to learn portion control than going gluten-free.
b) You cut out a lot of crap (yes, that's the technical term) and replaced it with whole foods. If you went on a gluten free binge, you probably found per my point above that there were now less options for you - look at a Starbucks display - what can you eat instead of sugary croissants or high-fat filled muffins? Probably the banana next to the till. "I felt better because I skipped gluten by having a banana instead of a muffin. IT MUST BE THE GLUTEN!" Orrrr…. it's that you're eating nutrient-rich foods instead of highly-processed sugar-drenched pre-packaged convenience foods.
To finish up this point - did you actually truly go gluten-free? You may be surprised how many things gluten is lurking in. A few spots you may not have suspected include: the soy sauce you dip your gluten-free sushi in, the malt vinegar you sprinkled on your gluten-free batter fish and chips, the salad dressing you poured on your kale and grilled chicken salad, the cup of tomato soup you started your meal with, or the food colouring giving your zero-calorie bottled beverage a nice tinted hue. So if you didn't cut all that out, and you felt better "cutting out gluten", my hunch is still that it was what ELSE you cut out along with the gluten. Let's move on.
Reason #2: Often the "gluten free" alternatives when it comes to pre-made food are WORSE for us than the same product with gluten.
Remember above when I said that gluten is what holds food together and gives it that chewy texture? We've taken the gluten out of all these foods we love, so now we need to add something back in to hold the ingredients together, give it a nice texture, and make it taste good. Enter added salt, sugar, and fat. Sounds like the right idea, eh? Let's take out a naturally occurring protein and plunk in some other highly processed and less healthy alternatives in order to keep this tasting good. AND, we've also upped the caloric value of all these gluten-free products compared to the equivalent product with gluten in. So, more calories, salt, fat, and sugar. Have I sold you yet?
Reason #3: Gluten-free products are more expensive.
There are times when more expensive = healthier and can be justified, but since I'm neither celiac nor am I looking to add extra calories, fat, sugar, and salt to my diet, I think I'll go with the cheaper option. That one was easy.
Reason #4: I workout and I need carbs for fuel and recovery.
This is a whole topic on its own, but if you exercise, you need carbs. And if I'm exercising to take care of my body, I also want to fuel it with the best sources I can - simple foods like whole-grain bread, homemade granola. And again, I am not gluten intolerant, so I'm going to keep it simple when it comes to making a pre or post workout snack or meal. Oh - and even if you don't exercise, you still need carbs. They help your brain function and stuff. Kinda important.
Reason #5: By cutting out gluten I could be ignoring nutritious foods.
Some of the products people are cutting out because of gluten are high-fibre. And many of us aren't going to the bathroom as regularly in a day as we should, so we really do need that fibre. Plus, there have been some studies that show gluten actually has beneficial effects on blood pressure and healthy bacteria in our digestive system. Not only might I be missing out on fibre filled foods, instead I could be eating sugary replacements that I'm told through clever marketing are healthier for me based on the fact they are gluten free. Quinoa granola bars I've come across in the grocery store are nothing more than well marketed chocolate bars - honestly, you may as well just go for it and eat a KitKat. Those marketing tactics are cruel.
The end notes: Why do we keep going round and round with nutrition, getting wrapped up in trends of 3-day cleanses and gluten-free and cave-man and low-fat and all the rest? My guess is, is because they promise quick results with straight forward instructions and relatively little effort. Cut out bread and I'll lose weight? Awesome! I can do that. Just drink juice for 3 days and I'll lose 5 pounds? Perfect, count me in. The problem is, people are cutting carbs or gluten or fat, yet they're still eating donuts, pop, and McDonald's. It just doesn't make sense. Here's the truth friends (if we're still friends after this): there is no secret. Just wholesome foods, prepared by you as much as possible, in appropriate quantities, and everything in moderation.