The truth about gluten-free foods

Last week at the grocery store, a woman asked me, “Is organic the same thing as gluten free?” I explained to her the difference between the two, and in the end, she opted for the gluten-free foods. As someone who can’t eat gluten without dire consequences, I am not happy that gluten-free has become the latest health fad. When given the choice between organic and gluten-free, the average person should definitely be choosing the organic option, which has no pesticides, no herbicides, no artificial colors or flavors, and no artificial preservatives!

The history of wheat and bread

I’ve heard some people say that there is no reason that so many people would suddenly be sickened by eating something that humans have been eating for thousands of years. But that’s the problem. The wheat products we’re eating today are nothing like what people were eating a century or two ago. In the beginning, all bread was whole grain and naturally fermented, making it easier to digest. Then two big inventions in the 1800s changed things.

The roller mill was invented, which made it possible to separate the germ and the bran from the starch. People knew this was causing a problem in their digestive systems as constipation became more common. An old saying advised, “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead.” But modern white bread soon became more popular than whole-grain brown bread.

They also figured out how to make yeast in a lab in the 1860s. The goal here was speed.  Natural sourdough fermentation took time, but with the new yeast, a loaf of bread would be ready to go into the oven in a few hours. No one gave any thought to how this might affect the human digestive system.

Then wheat changed in the 20th century. A new hybrid dwarf wheat was created, which was easier to harvest with a combine. The protein in that wheat is completely different from the proteins found in heirloom wheats.

Gluten intolerance

Celiac and gluten intolerant are not synonymous. Although all people with celiac are gluten intolerant, there are others who are gluten intolerant but don’t have celiac. They can feel just as miserable as someone with celiac when they eat something that contains gluten. Symptoms can include diarrhea or constipation, bloating, heartburn, and other digestive disturbances. But they can also have long-term health consequences. Many people with autoimmune diseases have discovered that when they eliminate gluten from their diet, many of their symptoms disappear. For example, I quit eating gluten after I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Within a few weeks, my asthma and reflux had completely disappeared. Over time, I’ve watched my thyroid antibodies go down, as well. When surveying those with autoimmune diseases who’ve tried a gluten-free diet, several researchers have found that the majority will see improvement in their symptoms. I should also mention that sometimes, people will also discover additional food sensitivities and need to eliminate other foods, but gluten is the most common.

Gluten-free foods

Many foods are gluten free naturally, such as meats, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, eggs, and most grains. The only grains that naturally contain gluten are wheat, rye, and barley. That means there are tons of foods that you can eat. However, because some people don’t want to give up their bread, crackers, cookies, and other foods traditionally made with wheat, a big business has popped up to give people what they want.

If you read the ingredient list on many packaged gluten-free foods — just as with many packaged foods that are not gluten-free — you will find a lot of unnatural and unhealthy ingredients. When I first went gluten free, I had no clue how to cook without wheat flour. And because I was really miserable at the time, I didn’t have the energy to learn about gluten-free baking. I bought a pancake mix, which I loved. “These are the most delicious pancakes! Better than regular pancakes!” But less than 30 minutes later, my blood sugar was off the charts. My hands were shaking terribly. I picked up the box and looked at the ingredients. Rice starch, tapioca starch, corn starch, and more starches. I looked at the nutritional analysis to confirm that it was indeed very high carb with no protein or fiber. No wonder my blood sugar was unhappy, and I was starving, even though I’d just eaten.

There is nothing innately healthier about gluten-free foods for the average person. In fact, many gluten-free foods are just junk that really should not be eaten by anyone. They may also be made with herbicide-laden and genetically-modified ingredients. Packaged gluten-free foods are not lower calorie and will not help you lose weight. However, it is important to note that many people who go on a gluten-free diet and simply stop eating all those foods that have gluten in them — bread, cookies, crackers — that they will lose weight. I’ve spoken to many people who lost 20 or more pounds when going gluten free. I lost almost 40 pounds myself. One woman I talked to said, “I lost 20 pounds when I first went gluten free after being diagnosed with celiac. Then I discovered all of the gluten-free foods in the grocery store and gained it right back!”

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