2017 saw many ignored grains finding their place under the sun, and on multiple plates. More and more people looked beyond just wheat and experimented with ancient grains and alternative flours, mostly gluten-free flours made from legumes, teff, amaranth etc.
A brilliant trend I feel, as rotating the grains (like the proteins, vegetables, fruits and the fats) is a good way to ensure not just variety, but also a more rounded diet.
When it is done for the right reason - to add variety to the diet - replacing some of the regular staples with unusual ones - is a good idea, but things begin to go wrong when going ‘gluten-free’ takes the shape of a faddist dieting ideology, and is done arbitrarily, and for erroneous reasons.
Lately somehow it has become hip to go gluten-free, and the number of “PWAGs,” (people without celiac disease avoiding gluten) has been increasing - and that is not a good trend.
Gluten is to this decade what carbohydrates were to the last one and fat was to the ’80s and ’90s - the bad boy that must be eliminated al all costs. We all know how those theories about fats and carbs turned tables eventually.
Gluten is not the diet villain, it is being painted as.
Gluten-Free: For a Medical Issue or a Fad?
It is important to understand the difference between a medical issue and a fad. For those with celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten is essential and even a small amount of gluten can cause serious symptoms.
Similarly people with undiagnosed celiac might display symptoms which might be associated with autism or severe ADHD, so going gluten-free (and often casein (milk protein) free) may help. There is also some evidence suggesting that a gluten-free diet may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems, and help reduce body pain associated with fibromyalgia.
But that’s it!
It needs to be be clarified and reiterated that those who do not have the above mentioned disorders do not need to remove gluten products (grains like wheat, barley and rye) completely from their diet. They can reduce them certainly to make space for alternatives, but must not go cold turkey.
Why a Gluten-Free Diet May Not Be a Good Option for All?
Well, the first reason is that a diet rich in highly processed gluten-free foods (that most people turn to) isn’t ideal for either healing the body or achieving a healthy weight. There is no evidence that a gluten-free diet is an effective weight loss tool.
In fact many gluten-free products available on the shelves tend to be high in calories, fat, and sugar (because when you remove gluten, you may need more fat or sugar to bind the food together).
So when you replace your regular high fibre whole grains with these highly processed, low-nutrient foods you are not doing your body any good, and are probably likely to gain weight too. In fact following the gluten-free fad can actually undermine people’s health because now there are gluten-free varieties of multiple junk food in the market. Whether your burger bun is gluten-free or not, it’s still a bun.
Something that is labelled gluten free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more natural and healthful, lower in calories, or is automatically a good option for weight loss.
Secondly, a common misconception is that gluten is mainly found in bread. In fact, gluten is in many foods so following a gluten-free diet can be very difficult, and often costly, too. Also people who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger number will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money.
Plus lets face it, a gluten-free diet is very difficult, even though this has become somewhat easier recently, it is still a significant inconvenience and expense.
Third, for most people whole wheat is usually a major source of dietary fibre, which the bowels need to work properly, and a diet that doesn’t have enough fibre can be damaging.
As it is most people don’t get enough fibre, and if you take away whole wheat completely and not make an effort to replenish the fibre consciously through other sources, the problem can get worse.
People on a low or gluten-free diet tend to also be deficient in iron, niacin, zinc, folic acid. Not supplementing these consciously could hurt one’s health too.
Finally if you stop eating gluten foods completely for a while, eventually your stomach may actually forget how to digest gluten and when you introduce them back - I have seen hell break loose in the tummies and bodies of a lot many people.
The fact is that when we take the hard-to-digest stuff out, we actually become weaker digesters over time, and it takes some time (often a lot of time) for your body to adjust back to it.
If you are at this stage then I have one big tip for you (it works with most people): include beets, apples, and leafy greens, as well as spices like ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom and fennel in the meal, to strengthen digestive acids that will help break down wheat.
Whatever you do, it’s time to stop the gluten fear-mongering. It is destroying our relationship with food. Trust me, as it always happens, soon enough we (and the marketeers) will be looking for another food ingredient or component to exorcise from our diet, and gluten will stop being everyones’ favourite villain.
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa))
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