Originally written for The Washington Post, February 2nd, 2017
Gluten-free foods have become commonplace in grocery stores, restaurants and cookbooks. For those who suffer from celiac disease, this is a huge win, because there are now so many options. And for those who feel extraordinary benefits from decreasing gluten because of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, inflammation or their own personal nutrition journey, living a gluten-free life is quite doable.
On the flip side, gluten-free living has become quite the trend. People are unnecessarily cutting out a lot of foods from their diet, spending a lot of money on other foods, living in extreme ways and potentially causing more harm than good. When deciding to follow a gluten-free diet, it is important to ask, “Why am I doing this?” and “What is the best way for me to live gluten-free based on my needs?”
Let’s discuss some of the common mistakes made by many who are eating gluten-free and assist in understanding why one would make this choice.
Many folks go on a gluten-free diet because they think it’s healthier. They happily buy all the gluten-free products in the markets, thinking they are a healthier choice solely because they’re gluten-free. They’re thrilled with all the gluten-free cookies, cakes, treats, and sweets out there because they are shopping with one rule: “Buy gluten-free.”
Avoiding gluten is not necessarily a guarantee of improved health! Gluten is what makes food have great texture, bounce and fluffiness. Have you tasted some of the gluten-free breads out there? Not so fluffy. When food manufacturers remove the gluten, they usually have to add a lot of ingredients and fillers — all gluten-free, mind you — to make the food tasty.
If you think eating gluten-free is going to help you reach your health goals, go for it. But you’re going to have to add some other rules when grocery shopping. A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie, and if it’s filled with dozens of processed ingredients to improve texture, it might be unhealthier than a “normal” cookie. Take some time to decide what other rules you want to add to your plan so it will help you reach your goals. Also, take time to read the ingredients of all foods you buy. Are they in line with what you want to put in your body?
Many join the gluten-free world because of inflammation and energy issues. In health and wellness circles, gluten-free diets are often recommended for these reasons. People start eating gluten-free hoping it will fix their ailments, but they’re not considering the bigger picture. Often, there are a multitude of things involved with inflammation, and it requires some mindfulness and awareness to get wise to the true symptoms and triggers.
Often, people will go on a gluten-free diet and feel some relief, but is it because of the gluten or is it because they are suddenly not eating cookies every night? Or is it because they also started avoiding some other ingredients?
Are you truly feeling better? You may convince yourself that the gluten-free diet is making you feel better, but in fact you still have the symptoms of inflammation. Take some time to examine how your body feels. When you notice you are having symptoms — whether it be headaches, digestive issues, joint pain, a skin rash or inflammation — start monitoring when you have those symptoms and the degree of severity. If you pay attention, you can feel confident that the effort you are putting into improving your health is working.
Many people go gluten-free and are convinced it’s the best plan for them because they lose weight, gain energy and feel better. Was eliminating gluten truly the catalyst to improved health? Or was it cutting out a lot of sources of processed wheat, such as cookies, bread, crackers, cereal, pastries and more? A gluten-free diet and a low-carb diet are two very different things. I encourage you to understand why you are doing what you are doing and make decisions based on that. If you are trying to lose weight, going gluten-free may not be necessary, but avoiding processed carbohydrates and sweets as well as increasing your vegetables, proteins and plant fats may be the best choice. If you are going gluten-free simply to give yourself motivation to avoid all bread and cookies and crackers, that’s fine . . . as long as you don’t fall into Mistake #1, where you start buying gluten-free breads and cookies that may be calorically and nutritionally worse than the gluten-rich product. If you want to follow a low-carb diet, you do not have to go gluten-free. Again, ask yourself: Why are you doing what you’re doing?
I am a fan of clean eating. Many blame gluten for their inflammation issues. Yes, gluten could be the culprit, but it might be all the other processed ingredients. Some of you are cutting out gluten and not seeing results. If you focused on clean eating and decreasing all the added ingredients that are found in processed food, you might get the results you want.
It’s easy to jump on the latest fad. Instead, create a plan that makes you feel good. Read ingredients, pay attention to your body and be sure you are eating in line with your goals.