Why gluten and the gluten-free diet?
If you have heard of gluten and the gluten-free diet before, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s usually used in reference to things to avoid. Gluten has a seemingly growing reputation as “dietary boogeyman du jour” (NPR, 2015).
But what exactly is gluten, and how do you know if you should be avoiding it? Gluten is a group of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s also often associated with oats.
With so many delicious foods made with wheat, having to avoid gluten in your diet means having to avoid those same delicious foods. The gluten-free food industry (a multi-billion dollar industry) is designed to make-up for that loss, developing gluten-free alternatives to your favourite meals and snacks.
Is gluten bad for you?
While cutting gluten and the gluten-free diet have come to be associated with weight loss, there is no evidence to support this claim (Riediger & Waugh, 2021).
The gluten-free diet, however, is a life saver (literally) for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease (or coeliac disease, as it is known in the UK). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is another reason people may opt for the gluten-free diet.
While celiac disease makes up a only an estimated 1% of the population, the gluten-free diet has been growing in popularity (Reilly, 2016). So, what gives?
Especially when we consider that the majority of people who do have celiac disease are undiagnosed (Whitburn, J., Rao, S.R., Paul, S.P. et al., 2021).
Reasons to quit gluten
It can be challenging to get a celiac diagnosis. One of the reasons for this is because the symptoms are so wide-ranging. Everything from stomach bloating and diarrhea to a general sense of fatigue. All symptoms commonly associated with other conditions.
The challenge posed by this spectrum of symptoms may lie at the heart of the gluten-free diet. For those experiencing poor health without a clear indication as to why, test-driving a gluten-free diet may seem like a reasonable option.
Like any change to diet, it’s always important to discuss things with a medical professional. When we consider that some people may lack access to health professionals (Golden & Mitchell, 2019), it’s no wonder gluten-free products may seem attractive for anyone left on their own to find and interpret, different health-related solutions through food (Wei, 2021).
How to avoid gluten
The best way to avoid gluten is, of course, to avoid any foods containing gluten. What may sound like an easy fix is, of course, much more complicated.
Gluten comes into our food supply in direct and indirect ways: directly, as an actual ingredient, easily found on the label; and indirectly, through cross-contamination through manufacturing processes as well as in food preparation.
Social implications of the gluten-free diet: More than food
Celiac disease is impacts social disease (Schroeder and Mowen, 2014). Gluten and the gluten-free diet come into play during social interactions where food is present. As a result, navigating social encounters prove challenging, and can even feel embarrassing and/or isolating. Celiac disease comes with a social stigma, and celiacs learn to navigate (sometimes by just plain avoiding them!) social settings to avoid stigmatization (Schroeder and Mowen, 2014).
Because gluten-free foods are also more expensive, accessibility to the gluten-free diet is also connected to social class.
The bottom line is that when it comes to navigating gluten and the gluten-free diet, you need to think beyond the diet itself. Altering any diet is challenging, and in the case of gluten-free foods, snacks, and beverages, it is always more complicated than it first appears.
It’s about more than just food; it will impact your relationships and how you engage socially with the world around you.
Remember that knowledge is power, and with a little time and patience, it will get easier.