The other day an old friend of mine emailed me asking me about the benefits of eating gluten free. He knows that I don’t have celiac disease, yet I keep talking about the gluten-free diet! Here’s my response:
Great question! Crystal (my wife) has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that causes her immune system to attack her intestines when she eats gluten. The gluten proteins that affect her can be found in wheat, barley and rye; so most flours, breads, pastas, beer, etc. are out of her diet (oats are often contaminated as well). The symptoms of celiac disease are often extremely painful stomach cramps and digestive problems, and the only known treatment is maintain a diet that is completely free of gluten.
The best way to stay true to the gluten-free diet is to eat fresh fruits, vegetables and meats and to prepare most of your own meals.
Because the gluten-free diet dictates that you stay away from many fatty, fried, and pre-packaged foods, it has caught on in Hollywood and with the media as a fad diet. The fallacy of this fad diet is that I can eat just as unhealthy on a gluten-free diet as I can on a diet full of gluten — I can have beer brewed from sorghum, pizza made with a gluten-free crust (made with rice, potato, tapioca flours, or even cheese-based crusts), burgers (using gluten-free buns or lettuce buns), chicken fried in gluten-free batter, gluten-free cookies and pastries, etc.
The other challenge with the gluten-free diet fad is that it can discount the seriousness of celiac disease. Since people who don’t have the disease don’t show ill-effects when they consume gluten, some restaurants and food preparers don’t take the diet as seriously as they should. People with celiac disease are as sensitive to gluten as people with a peanut allergy are to peanuts, and there are many hidden sources of gluten that people don’t consider (unlike a peanut allergy, consuming gluten is not immediately life-threatening and the effects of consuming gluten are not felt immediately because the food doesn’t cause pain until it hits the intestines).
Hidden sources of gluten include some soy sauces (the caramel color is sometimes derived from wheat), some salad dressings, some white vinegars (when distilled from wheat), “natural flavors” on ingredient labels sometimes signify wheat, MSG usually uses wheat as a stabilizer, and many more. The diet can be very difficult to adhere to, and it’s almost always a struggle when we eat at restaurants or friends’ houses to ensure that Crystal is eating a truly gluten-free meal.
The long-term effects of consuming gluten for those with celiac disease are a compromised immune system, increased risk of colon and other cancers, anemia, low energy, and other health complications due to lack of immune function and/or nutrient absorption.
You may also be interested to know that untreated celiac disease in children has been linked to anemia, underdevelopment, and even autistic symptoms.
The benefits of living on a gluten-free diet for me are pretty evident. While I still have the occasional pizza and beer away from home, I primarily eat food that is fresh, nutritious, and high in natural fiber and protein. It is much easier to stay lean and feel healthy when you are eating food that you prepare from scratch yourself!
I’m not interested in convincing people to live a completely gluten-free life unless they have celiac disease, but the health benefits of cutting out processed and fatty foods are remarkable.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this long answer. I’m sure it’s more than you bargained for!
I posted this email because my friend replied that he has had trouble finding a good explanation of the gluten-free diet and said that this information is helpful. Hopefully it is helpful for you as well!
Photo by Sbocaj