For many people, eating gluten-free is a choice forced upon them by nature. Currently, statistics suggest that 1% of the North American population suffers from Celiac Disease, and another 15% report some sort of gluten sensitivity. As such, there’s a whole minefield around whether gluten-free meal-planning should be treated as a medical necessity for those who suffer from gluten intolerances; as a diet fad similar to the low-fat craze of the 90’s; or as a marketer’s dream for products that didn’t have gluten in them to begin with.
What is a Gluten-Free diet?
To answer the question – what is gluten-free, let’s first ask: What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, especially the wheat family. It’s what adds elasticity to dough and helps bread products to keep their shape.
And which foods contain gluten?
- Barley (that means no beer)
- Oats (sort of – sensitivity with oats tends to be far less than other grains)
It’s not found in:
- All Rice
For more info about gluten, check out this post we did a couple of years ago!
What do Gluten-Free diets claim?
First, let’s be clear – a low-carb diet and a gluten-free diet are not the same thing. Many people conflate carbs with grains. Carbohydrates are sugar-based molecules found in many foods, including both whole and refined grains. Refined grains are those that have had their germ and bran stripped away through the milling process – making them less nutrient-dense (and often very tasty and easy to consume). Whole grains are minimally milled, and are often more nutritionally dense. They can also offer variety to your diet.
Those set to demonize grains (think, Wheat Belly and Grain Brain) argue that ANY grains will cause: inflammation, intestinal damage, obesity, brain fog, dementia, joint pain, asthma, depression, chronic fatigue, and hosts of other damaging effects. And if you have Celiac Disease or a gluten-sensitivity, many of those symptoms might be true for you, and eating gluten-free might be your only option to avoid pain and discomfort. Hard-core supporters of a grain-free lifestyle, though, will argue that eliminating grains is the way to health for the general population. They claim that staying grain-free (and hence, gluten-free) will lead to improved cholesterol levels, gains in digestive health, increased energy levels, and deceases in all of the ailments stated above.
They also claim by eliminating gluten, you eliminate a number of “unhealthy” foods – like cakes, crackers, and refined breads. Keep in mind that a food labeled “gluten-free” does not automatically become healthy – for example, a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips is totally gluten-free and even bears certification from the Canadian Celiac Association.
Are there any studies to back up those claims?
For Celiac sufferers, absolutely! For those with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, some, but the data is often inconclusive as to whether the sensitivity is actually to gluten, or rather to FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols). These are type of carbohydrates that exist in wheat, lentils and mushrooms that can absorb water into the intestine and potentially ferment, which can cause similar symptoms for some. Wheat allergies can also be mis-judged as gluten sensitivity.
Just as with the majority of nutritional research that relies on self-reporting, the results can often be interpreted a number of ways. Those who have to follow gluten-free diets, like those with Celiac, are often far more likely to have incentive to be fully compliant with the diet. This is some studies tend to have general population participants drop out or “slip up” throughout the course of the study, muddying the data.
Another challenge with nutritional research is that with one change often comes many. Eliminating a staple food like grain is usually accompanied with an overhaul of other dietary habits too, and that change in eating patterns, inclusion of more leafy greens, vegetables, lean proteins, and nutrient-dense foods can also be an explanation for why some general population adherants “feel better gluten-free”.
To get a better idea of how being gluten-free fits into the derby lifestyle, let’s talk to someone who lives it – former TCRD and Team Ontario skater, Fraxxure.
What’s gluten-free, in a nutshell, to you?
Gluten-free is the absence of wheat proteins. Including, but not limited to wheat, barley, rye and numerous other wheat type products containing gluten proteins. Gluten-free means paying very close attention to food labels and understanding how easily cross-contamination can occur in order to avoid that nasty devil known as gluten.
Why do you follow this particular dietary strategy?
Why do I torture myself by avoiding yummy gluten? For over a year, I was grossly anemic. Taking iron supplements in large doses was not bringing my iron levels into normal range. My doctor and I began trying to rule out numerous problems that could be behind my anemia. Given my history of having explosive, loose, crampy bowel movements for over 20 yrs (you asked!) that were dismissed as “normal for me”, my physician began to suspect an absorption issue. We “trialed” a gluten-free regimen for several months, continued with iron supplements, and slowly my levels began to rise.
What is the most challenging aspect of eating gluten-free?
I am a very active person and spend little time at home. I also work 12 hour shifts, and I love to eat A LOT. The biggest challenge has been ensuring I have food I can eat from home and being cautious if I have to eat out. In addition, it has been challenging for my family that live with me – my wife and brother-in-law. It is difficult sometimes for them to bring home dinner or pick up some groceries. Our household food supply is pretty well gluten-free now, so no mishaps can happen. Fortunately, I have a very supportive and understanding family that have taken the time to learn all things gluten with me!
What is the greatest benefit of eating gluten-free?
No anemia! Higher energy levels and all the things that go along with having balanced minerals and vitamins in my body.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where NoFair will cut out gluten and share some of the best gluten-free recipes she can find!
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