But is eating gluten, the protein found in wheat that gives our bread dough that stretchy feeling, really making us any less healthy?
For a little less than the 1% of the population who have celiac disease, an underdiagnosed autoimmune disorder where eating gluten damages the small intestine, ditching gluten is necessary.
Another 0.63% to 6% of people may be sensitive to gluten without having celiac, meaning that when they eat gluten, they get many of the symptoms that people with celiac disease do. (This condition, called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a bit controversial, however, with several studies suggesting it's either overblown or doesn't exist.)
If you're considering going gluten-free and not changing any other dietary habits because it seems like the best way to lose a few pounds, here's why that really isn't the best idea:
1. It's in lots of the foods you eat.
Not so gluten-free.
To be truly gluten-free requires a lot more than taking the buns off your burger. Gluten is found in lots of things, from salad dressings and creamy soups (where it's used as a thickening agent) to soy sauce. And, of course, beer has gluten because it's made with wheat or barley.
2. Foods with gluten are also often rich in other nutrients.
If you quit gluten without changing any other aspects of your diet, you may be at risk of not getting enough of two key ingredients: fiber and vitamin B. The eight B vitamins assist our bodies in siphoning energy from our food we eat. They also help us make red blood cells, which deliver oxygen. One in particular, called folic acid, is important for pregnant women because it helps prevent birth defects. While vitamin B is plentiful in lots of other types of food, from fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products to leafy greens, peas, and beans, it's also found in a lot of cereals and bread products. If your diet is already lacking in these areas and you go gluten-free, you could be at risk of a deficiency.
Fiber, another ingredient that's prevalent in bread and grains, is important for helping us control blood sugar levels, keep us feeling full after a meal, and regulating our bowel movements.
3. The gluten-free craze could be making it harder for people who truly can't eat it.
Compared with people who have celiac disease or a gluten allergy, people who shun gluten for "health reasons" get to be a little more relaxed about what counts as going gluten free. For example, they don't have to worry about cross-contamination (when gluten-full products touch gluten-free foods), and the occasional "cheat day" is permissible.
But many who actually can't eat gluten say the craze has created an unwanted stigma around their very real health problem. "Waiters, thinking I am just another ankle-boot wearing Gwyneth wannabe, no longer take me seriously," writes Elissa Strauss, who has celiac disease, in Jezebel. "It is actually harder for me to eat out now than it was a few years ago because a little dusting of flour on a piece of flounder equals a few days in bed for me."
You'd be better off just steering clear of this aisle.4. Gluten likely isn't the culprit of your tummy troubles.
When you cut out gluten, you cut out a lot of junk food, which research suggests could be the real reason some people suddenly feel better when they go gluten-free. Instead of cutting gluten, try just cutting junk food instead.
5. Going gluten-free before you consult your doctor can make things trickier.
The only way to test for celiac is when you have gluten in your system. So, if you think you might have a sensitivity or even celiac, it's best to go to the doctor before changing your eating habits. That way, they can run the tests and let you know for sure exactly what's making you feel funky.
The moral of the story? We've been eating gluten for at least 10,000 years. For the vast majority of us, cutting it out now — unless medically necessary — isn't our best bet for a healthy lifestyle.