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To Be or Not To Be Gluten-Free?

We see it all the time as we’re scrolling through our crowded social media feeds, browsing through the local grocery store aisles and even sitting down to eat at our favorite restaurant: gluten-free. Every day, it seems like another friend or celebrity is raving about their decision to say goodbye to gluten and the wonders it’s been working for them.

But in a world where cutting gluten out of your daily diet is the latest health fad, it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s real, what’s trendy and what’s actually going to work for you.

Laurie Coleman, a licensed dietitian with OhioHealth, is here to get the facts straight about going gluten-free and whether this bandwagon is one you want to consider hopping on.

For starters, what in the world is gluten?

Gluten is a complex protein that helps give wheat products their structure. We like to think of it as the glue that holds our food together. When you remove it, foods begin to look, feel and taste different.

Next time you try a gluten-free grain product, pay attention to its texture. You’ll notice a remarkable difference between a product with gluten in it vs. a product without it.

What does a gluten-free diet actually require me to give up?

Wheat, barley and rye are the top three offenders of containing gluten. Unfortunately, these three grains can be found in everything from our favorite guilty pleasures, like pizza, doughnuts and pasta, to things we may not expect, like beer, salad dressing and soy sauces.

Giving up these types of foods means swapping over to a more plant-based diet instead, which can put you at risk of iron deficiency and low vitamin B and fiber levels. Filling your plate with things like fresh fruits, vegetables, oats, quinoa and whole-muscle meats, like salmon or chicken, becomes key to maintaining a healthy vitamin and mineral levels.

Instead of sitting down on the couch with a bag of chips, try any of the following snack options for a vitamin-packed replacement:

  • Apple slices with almond butter
  • Red peppers with garlic hummus
  • Avocado spread on whole-grain, gluten-free bread
  • Baked sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon

Is saying goodbye to gluten really as healthy as it seems?

For the 3 million people in the U.S. living with celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance, the answer is yes. When people with celiac disease ingest even the smallest amount of gluten, their body reacts with an immune response that attacks the small intestine, damaging their ability to absorb nutrients.

However, for people without gluten sensitivity who still rave about the health benefits, the improvements they’re feeling may not be completely related to gluten after all.

“Sure, there’s potential for the average person to feel better if they take away gluten-related products,” says Coleman. “But that can mostly be explained by the decrease in caloric intake once they cut out things like baked goods, white breads and other types of high-calorie foods.”

While it’s still worth considering a gluten-free diet, many of these same results can be achieved by simply including more fruits and veggies and less fatty, sugary foods in daily diet instead. Swearing off gluten completely is often not necessary.

On the flip side, going gluten-free can actually cause more health problems than a regular diet if you don’t do it right. How can that be?

“It’s important not to immediately start replacing gluten-containing foods with more red meat, full-fat dairy, starchy vegetables, and sweets and fats,” explains Coleman. “These foods can lead to a higher intake of cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium and, ultimately, unwanted calories. I see a lot of people come in with increased blood sugar levels after they remove gluten from their diets.”

And those food items you see in the grocery store aisles with a gluten-free logo slapped on the packaging? They’re not as guilt-free as they seem either.

“It’s so important to limit commercially prepared gluten-free snacks and bakery products, which are typically high in refined carbohydrate, fat, sugar and salt — just like their gluten-containing counterparts,” says Coleman. “On occasion it’s okay to get manufactured gluten-free products, but don’t substitute those types of gluten-free products for everything.”

The smartest thing you can do for your diet is to start filling your pantry with products that are naturally gluten-free, like fresh produce and organically grown whole grains.

How do I know if this diet is right for me?

The bottom line? Stop with the internet searches and go have a conversation with a dietitian. If you want to try it for yourself before scheduling an appointment, Coleman recommends these steps.

  • Make a list of all the things that are annoying you about how much gluten is in your diet, regardless of whether you think you might be gluten-sensitive.
  • Do a quick, thirty-day trial of going gluten-free.
  • If you notice remarkable changes, then it might be for you.
  • Still confused? Go see a dietitian. Even if going gluten-free isn’t the holy grail answer you were looking for, anyone can benefit from a critical assessment.

No matter what you decide, it’s important to remember that diet-related issues are normally not traced back to just one thing, gluten included. Each person has their own threshold for processing gluten, and it’s up to each person to discover what theirs is.

In need of an appointment? Click here to schedule an appointment with an OhioHealth dietitian!