Have you gone gluten-free yet? That’s what everyone seems to be asking these days. Many people, however, don’t even know what gluten is; they just heard on Dr. Oz or some other nonsense media blast that gluten was “bad” and should be avoided. My favorite is how advertising and marketing companies have picked up the trend and will now add a “gluten-free” label to all sorts of products that NEVER HAD gluten! For example, tomato sauce, or salsa…spoiler alert: fruits and veggies don’t contain gluten; never have. But, the marketing gurus know what a big catch-phrase that is these days and are milking it for all it’s worth (speaking of milk, also naturally gluten-free). So, what is this dreaded gluten and should you be avoiding it?

Gluten is a particular family of proteins that’s found in some grains.  When gluten meets water, like in the baking process, a sticky cross-linking is formed, helping to provide shape, structure, and a pleasant texture to baked goods. Think of bagels; this particular baked product often has added gluten or relies on bread flour (which has a higher gluten content) to produce that dense, chewy texture we all know and love.  Conversely, cakes are typically made with cake flour, which naturally has a lower gluten content, resulting in those highly sought after light, fluffy cake layers. Ok, so, now that we have a basic understanding of what gluten is, let’s talk about whether it should be a part of our diet or not.

About 1% or less of the population suffers from a serious autoimmune disorder known as Celiac Disease. In this disease, the body reacts to gluten in the digestive tract, attacking both the gluten AND the intestinal cells themselves, causing massive damage and malnutrition. Another 0.4% of the population has a diagnosed wheat allergy. In this case, because wheat contains gluten, wheat is a problem and other gluten-containing items could be too, as allergies are to the proteins in food, and, as previously mentioned, gluten is a protein. Ok, so 1.4% or so of the population seems to have a legitimate reason to completely avoid gluten-containing products. What about the other 98.6% of us?

Many claim they have a gluten “sensitivity”, in which eating gluten-containing foods produces headaches, brain fog, fatigue, bloating, etc. Studies have been unable to produce consistent results to confirm or deny such claims as of yet. Because gluten forms a sticky, glue-like network in food products, digestion can be a bit trickier, which many claim is part of the “problem” with gluten. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to separate out the effect of gluten from the effect of a gluten-filled diet. By that, I mean, many people who claim to have trouble with gluten are also eating a LOT of processed foods and have an unhealthy digestive tract, devoid of proper gut flora (which helps with the digestion process) and other beneficial, nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and veggies. When the bulk of your diet is coming from baked goods, breads, pastas, crackers, etc., perhaps the gluten isn’t the problem, but the overall diet is…

Speaking of, what exactly contains gluten? Well, to be “gluten-free”, one must avoid wheat, in all forms (flour, germ, bran), spelt, rye, barley, einkorn, triticale, kamut, duram flour, farina, fraham flour, semolina, and gluten (which is often isolated and added to food products). Ok, so what CAN you eat if you’re avoiding gluten? Meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, healthy fats, quinoa, rice, buckwheat (even though there’s “wheat” in the name, buckwheat is NOT related to wheat at all, but is more closely related to rhubarb), and oats. So, to put that another way, if you’re going to avoid gluten, you must avoid baked goods, pasta, bagels, bread, muffins, cakes, crackers, packaged goods with added gluten like many protein bars, and cookies, i.e. you would be avoiding a lot of processed foods and consuming, instead, a lot of whole, real, unprocessed foods…hmmmm, that seems like a healthier diet regardless of gluten content…

What about gluten-free options? Gluten-free breads, cookies, etc., those would all be ok and better for you, right? Well, first, as we just discussed in the previous paragraph, gluten may not be the issue at all and the processed crap it’s often a part of may be the real issue. Second, gluten-free foods, much like “fat-free” or “sugar-free” foods, tend to not be healthier, but often even worse than their non-altered counterpart. Gluten-free foods tend to be highly processed (which makes sense, since they are essentially offering you a replacement for a previously processed food), higher in sugar and fat, and basically empty calories. There are certainly exceptions, especially if you’re making homemade muffins with coconut or almond flour, etc., but as a general rule, processed food = processed food, gluten-free or otherwise, and should never make up a significant percentage of your diet. Additionally, following a gluten-free diet without proper guidance can result in a lack of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, nutrients often found in whole grains like whole wheat.

So, what’s the verdict? For some, gluten-free is essential due to an actual reaction to gluten-containing products, but just like one person having an allergy to strawberries doesn’t mean we should all go “strawberry-free”, the same principle applies here. Yes, gluten can be difficult to digest, but this will especially be true and exacerbated if you have a poor diet, are overweight, have added inflammation from chronic disease and stress, and don’t take care of your digestive health. The best thing to do? Worry less about whether something is “gluten-free” and more about whether it’s processed period. Eat real food, not too much, not too little. Exercise. Sleep. Hydrate. There’s only one “thing” you can avoid in your diet that will definitely lead to better health – processed crap.

Aubrey MS, RDN