To Be or Not to Be Gluten-Free.

The weather is getting warmer and for a lot of people, it means thinking about your “summer body.” It can be assumed that more than half of us will promise to get ourselves into a healthier state with our minds and bodies, by ways of exercising more and eating better. One route people are taking more is becoming gluten-free, even if they are tolerant of gluten. The problem is most of us truly don’t know what gluten is (myself included). It’s simply assumed to be bread, which isn’t wrong; gluten is a protein found in wheat (most bread), rye, malt, barley, and oats. A question one has to contemplate is whether or not being gluten-free is an appropriate and truly healthy choice for someone who is tolerant of it or is it just simply another food trend much like juice cleanses or the Atkins diet.

It appears that a majority of people regard the gluten-free trend as simply that. I remember one summer day in 2012 I was working as a cashier at HomeSense in downtown Toronto when a woman came to my register with multiple snacks, which were all noticeably labelled “gluten-free.” She remarked how happy she was finding snacks for her son who has been gluten intolerant his entire life. I smiled and replied, “Well we have lots of gluten-free options, and it’s a popular item downtown.” She scrunched her nose and replied, “Yes it makes it easier to find it now for those who are actually intolerant rather than someone doing it because it’s a trend.” I could sense the anger and judgement in her voice. The gluten-free route is a trend that has been growing rapidly over the years with Wheat Belly by William Davis as an example of a publication key to the growing interest in the gluten-free life. The choice to cut out gluten from your daily life when you don’t have to is a really baffling choice in the eyes of someone who is actually gluten intolerant.

“I don’t understand anyone who would make [being gluten-free] a choice,” says newlywed Jennifer Ferguson, who is gluten-intolerant and suspects to have Celiac disease. “The food is getting better, but will never be as good; it’s more expensive, harder to find, and harder to eat out or go to people’s homes for meals.” Jennifer is not alone in her confusion about people going gluten-free by choice. Nikki Turner understands and shares Jennifer’s opinion about going gluten-free when you don’t need to and the difficulty of finding gluten-free foods while dining out or shopping. “I don’t go to restaurants that don’t advertise that they have gluten-free options because it’s too hard. You’ll ask, ‘Is this gluten-free?’ and they’ll say, ‘Uh, yea’ and then you’ll be home and be really sick,” says Nikki. It’s a natural reaction for most people when someone asks if the food is gluten-free. Their eyes roll and they assume that you are simply asking because you’re on the latest diet. This is dangerous for people like Jennifer and Nikki who could become quite sick if they consume any gluten.

There is a silver lining to the trend, “It’s increased the number of options available,” Jennifer continues, “The food is getting better, cheaper and easier to find.” We’ve all noticed going to restaurants and looking at the menus, the symbol is usually a “G” fancied up to signify if this item is gluten-free. Some restaurants have gone so far as to note on their menus that there is a gluten-free menu available if anyone would prefer to order from that.  Personally, I couldn’t go completely gluten-free; one taste of homemade gluten-free pasta and bread had me convinced. Nikki and Jennifer agree, “The bread that you buy frozen from Loblaw’s or President’s Choice or any of the big brand stores is really bad, it tastes like a sponge,” says Nikki.

Another route that one could go to become gluten-free (whether they are tolerant of gluten or not) is to change your normal palate. “I tend to eat a lot more Asian food and Mexican than I used to because most of those foods are just naturally gluten-free so there’s not a lot of substitutions involved.” Jennifer tells me. Of course, anyone who thinks they could be gluten intolerant, or possibly have Celiac Disease, needs to contact their family doctor and be tested. Some common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and flatulence and can even go so far as to include non-Gastrointestinal issues such as muscle cramping, skin rashes, joint pain, and mouth ulcerations. If you are still feeling bloated from eating foods that contain gluten, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have Celiac Disease or are gluten intolerant, “You feel bloated when you eat refined carbohydrates,” says Marinoush Megardichian, a Toronto-based nutritionist, “instead, choose complex carbohydrates and do not consume many packaged and processed items. Eating whole foods, made at home will give you much better results in terms of feeling healthier and even losing weight instead of going gluten-free.”

Nutritionists would not suggest people becoming gluten-free if they are tolerant of it, there doesn’t appear to be any long-term benefits to actually removing gluten from one’s diet. “By going gluten-free, you are almost cutting out the entire ‘grain product’ food group, which means you would be losing out on all of the nutrients whole grain products offer,” says Marinoush. She says that when you are purchasing gluten-free products from the store when you are tolerant of gluten, you would “be consuming products that have added fat or sugar to the product…when companies remove something from a product, they need to replace it with something else, which is usually sugar or fat.” Yikes! Not good news for anyone who was really looking at the gluten-free route as the healthy alternative. Like with any diets, or with consuming food in general, balance is the key to it all.  If you are keen on cutting back on products that have gluten, “[F]oods such as breads and pastas should not be eaten in excess, and always should be in their least processed form.  If eating gluten, less altered grains like rye and spelt are often more favourable than heavily processed wheat,” suggests Tara Miller, a nutritionist in Toronto. She says outside of having body issues such as the bloating, cramping, skin issues and fatigue, nutritionists are skeptical to suggest the gluten-free route to clients.

Anyone thinking about going gluten-free needs to be prepared for the costs that follow. Cynthia Barber, who went gluten-free by choice, researched the foods that she would have to buy and whether or not the costs were justified by the limited income she had. Feel free to take this opportunity to explore new things in your local grocery store as Cynthia did, “I saw this as a new challenge and excuse to spend more time exploring the exotic food aisles for alternatives,” she says. Like Jennifer suggested, look at other cultures for gluten-free options.

If you are really serious about going gluten-free, do your research to make the process a bit easier on yourself. Attend gluten-free cooking classes, buy gluten-free cookbooks and consult a nutritionist who will give you the best advice on how to adjust your life accordingly. And if, while researching, you happen to find gluten-free bread and pasta that actually tastes good, please spread the word!


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