Oh, gluten

I feel like gluten hit a peek then leveled off, but it still holds a bit of the spotlight. There seems to be a very black-and-white division between those who consume gluten, and those who don’t. So what’s the deal with this stuff anyway?

Although I hate to see any fad diet come around (along with the emphatic know-it-alls,) the one good thing about having a particular ingredient in the headlines is that some people, (and I do mean some,) will really delve in and find the truth. Then those few people will roll their eyes anytime someone mentions it; and out of those few some will speak up and pass on what they’ve learned. So in the interest of spreading my opinion and some truth, here is what I’ve gathered.

To really understand, we need to know what is gluten. I won’t go Webster on you, but basically it is a protein present in wheat that acts as a binding agent. It’s why wheat products can be light and fluffy without falling apart. This binding allows dough to be stretched and kneaded, which in turn allows air to be trapped and gives that pastry-like quality that is so dang delicious.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the discussion around it. Gluten free has been pushed as a healthier option. But how many people actually stop and ask how is this ingredient effecting their bodies? Based solely on what I hear people say and the questions they ask me, I would put my money on very few. So let’s break that down a little.

Food allergies are big business right (Sorry, not sorry.) So many people identify with developing some sort of reaction to specific foods. (I’m one of them!) But to be specific, gluten allergies range from very mild to severe. You could simply be more tired than normal, you could develop a rash, or fall somewhere in between. Then on the worst side of it, gluten could trigger an auto-immune disorder, which is called Celiac disease. To be clear, the only way to know for sure where you fall on the scale is to talk to your doctor and be tested.

But too many people see a healthy claim and jump on board. Instead, they should get real honest and ask “am I actually sensitive to gluten?” Some people have a legitimate reason for ditching it. I know people who have reactions in varying degrees, and even know people who have celiacs. For those, there is a need to go through the painstaking process of avoiding this protein.

But for most people the answer is no. And for those people it’s important to understand that gluten IS NOT bad for you. In reality there are tangible health benefits to gluten. For example, it’s no secret that whole grains help lower heart disease risks, and that fiber helps your digestive system. If you are (unnecessarily) on a gluten-free diet, you’re depriving yourself of that; and at the very least you’re having to find ways to supplement. It also should be noted that for years vegans have been using gluten as a source of protein. And I say this so often I need a recording: your body’s preferred source of energy is carbohydrates.

So let’s think about that. If I told you that I had a food that could lower your risk for disease, work as a prebiotic, help your body run smoothly, give you prolonged energy, and provide a little protein, wouldn’t you say “I’m in!”

Now I’m not telling you to go buy all the bread. I’m saying that everyone should be seriously evaluating individual needs, and not taking a “healthy” claim at face value. Yes, bread is “high” in carbs and calories. But you need calories to live, right? And further have you looked at whole wheat options? Rye? Pumpernickel? Because there is a HUGE difference between whole grains and refined grains. Have you outweighed the pros and cons? Is it really worth the daily Metamucil, when you could just eat a serving (or six) of whole grains once a day? In reality a piece of wheat bread isn’t going to make you gain weight. Probably what is causing the scale to tip is the refined sugars and grains. Conversely, avoiding refined grains (what people mistakenly think is gluten,) will cause you to lose weight. There are SO. MANY. OPTIONS. to get whole grains into your diet. And SO. MANY. WAYS. to replace refined foods. Because, and read this carefully: not all carbohydrates are grains, and not all grains are evil.

By now you’re saying ok get to the point. Here it is: if you think you have an intolerance, even a mild one, get in touch with your doctor. They will help you flesh it out and know for sure. If you went gluten-free because of it’s health claims, but physically feel no different when you’re consuming grain, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate. And if you’re still not sure, start with some further research. Here’s an article from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It is very informative and worth the read. Education is key. Because when you know the truth, no amount of pretty packaging and amazing words would sway you from doing what is best for YOU.

Hidden sugar

If you’re trying to follow a healthy lifestyle then you’ve probably considered your sugar intake at some point. It seems to be a staple in the American diet; and people everywhere are trying to limit their consumption of cakes, cookies, and candies. But these precautions are sometimes not enough to keep you within the recommended 25-37 grams a day. One of the main problems is that sugar is added to almost everything we eat, and it’s not always easy to spot.

If you want to take the extra step to keep added sugar out of your diet, start scanning the label of your packaged foods. Sugar, agave, and honey are some of the more obvious that can be listed. Also look out for anything that has the word syrup tacked onto it. Unfortunately most sugars are not that up front. Here is a list of sugars, in various forms, taken from Sugar Science (more on them later.)

barley malt
cane juice
fruit juice

These culprits are often used in conjunction, making it difficult to spot how many sources of sugar are in your food. A quick scan of the ingredients will help you make an informed decision on wether or not the “natural” or “healthy” claim on the box is really true. This isn’t to say that you should avoid all sugars, just that you should be aware of what you’re consuming in order to improve or maintain your level of health. As always, starting with un- or minimally processed foods whenever possible is your best bet.

If you want to learn more about sugar in our diet head over to Sugar Science at SugarScience.ucsf.edu. There, a team of scientists from the University of California San Francisco have put together their research to help inform the public on this issue.

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Comment below with your food label questions, maybe I’ll use them as the next topic.