Pizza, cookies, even waffles—these days it seems like everything and everyone is going gluten-free. It’s one of the health trends du jour with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Since 2009, the number of people going sans gluten has tripled and today 1 in 3 Americans say they are trying to avoid gluten.
Chances are you know someone who doesn’t eat gluten and maybe you’ve even tried or are considering cutting back on gluten yourself. Nearly 72 percent of Americans that avoid gluten are considered PWAGs, people without celiac disease avoiding gluten. But before you commit to the gluten-free diet it’s important to understand what gluten is and if avoiding it is helpful or harmful for those without a gluten intolerance. Consider this your gluten-free cheat sheet.
Wait, what is gluten?
Gluten is old. People have eaten gluten for at least the past 10,000 years. In that time gluten has become one of the most consumed proteins in the world.
At its basic level, gluten is what helps bread rise and gives it its chewy texture. It’s a protein found in wheat and other grains including spelt, barley, and rye, that’s created when the protein molecules glutenin and gliadin come into contact and from a bond, such as when bakers knead dough. Essentially, gluten is an edible glue that holds food together.
Got it. So is gluten bad?
For the vast majority of people, gluten is nothing to worry about.
About 1 percent of the population has a severe intolerance to gluten. Suffering from what is known as celiac disease, when these people eat gluten it causes digestive issues, weight fluctuations, and inflammatory conditions. It’s not known exactly what causes celiac disease, although there is an increased risk for those that have a family member with the disease. Those with celiac disease should avoid gluten.
Some people without celiac disease have what’s known as “non-celiac gluten intolerance.” These people may experience fatigue, mood swings, stiff joints, acne, and other side effects when they eat gluten. But the percentage of the population suffering from “non-celiac gluten intolerance” is small. A 2015 study found that of the people who avoid gluten, roughly 86% of them can tolerate gluten just fine.
So, how do I decide if I should go gluten-free or not?
If you’re concerned about gluten you should talk to your doctor so that they can rule out celiac disease. After that, if you want to try a gluten-free diet, there’s probably not much harm in it (again, it’s a good idea to talk to your health care professional first), and then commit to going gluten-free for a set period of time, such as 4 to 6 weeks.
To do that, you’ll want to remove all refined grains from your diet: breads, most baked goods, pastas, beer (yes, most beer has gluten in it). You also likely need to stay away from many foods promoted as gluten-free like those cookies in the supermarket because many foods labeled as gluten-free have a ton of sugar in them. Basically you’ll need to become a pro at reading labels and be aware that your daily meal habits may take a bit more work, at least at first.
Will I benefit from a gluten-free diet?
Maybe. There’s no easy answer. After 4-6 weeks of no gluten see how you feel and work with your health professional to slowly reintroduce gluten. You may find that you feel better when you’re not eating gluten or you may notice no change at all.