Five things to consider before going gluten-free

Bandwagons can be great big friendly vehicles, but just make sure you get all the info before boarding that party bus.

Gluten-free is the latest health and diet craze, but I don’t need to tell you that. Gluten-free is absolutely everywhere these days, and everyone is talking about it. Not sure what all the fuss is about? You’ve come to the right place. Here are five items to consider before going gluten-free, or not. 

1. Understand exactly what it is and why we eat it in the first place

Gluten is composed of two different proteins: gliadin (a prolamin protein) and glutenin (a glutelin protein). Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat endosperm (a type of tissue produced in seeds that's ground to make flour). The function of gluten is to nourish plant embryos during germination. In terms of your palate, it’s what makes dough stretchy, bagels chewy, bread spongy and is used in myriad other ways as a thickening agent, from soup to sauces to salad dressings. In and of itself, gluten has no nutritional value, but is found in foods that do.

To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten is truly evil. Their bodies regard even a crumb of it as a malicious invader and launch an immune response. This immune reaction ends up damaging the small intestine, which causes both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies.

You might have seen the YouTube video by Jimmy Kimmel where he interviews people about their gluten free diets and finds they don’t even have a clue what gluten is. Don’t be that person. If you're going to try going gluten-free, at least know what you’re getting into and what you’re talking about.

2. What will it take?

If you want to try a gluten-free diet, be well aware that it will be a radical shift. It might sound as easy as cutting out bread or eating less pasta, but it's not. Because gluten makes food thick and tasty, it's added to many prepared foods, not just bread products. 

You also need to make sure you don't end up with nutritional deficiencies from taking out vitamin-enriched and wholegrain foods and replacing them with prepared gluten-free products.

Gluten-free food does not necessarily mean healthier food. Wheat and whole grains contain fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, phytochemicals, minerals like iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats and vitamin E. Make sure you are putting these in your diet from other sources to maintain optimum health.

There is an argument that the reason people feel better on a gluten-free diet is because they move away from prepared foods and begin consuming real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and dairy. This brings us to point three:

3. Be wary of marketing

Marketers and advertisers have built careers on separating you from your money, and gluten-free is something they are definitely cashing in on. According to the National Post, the Canadian gluten-free market has gone from nothing nearly a decade ago, to nearly half a billion dollars by 2012.

“Gluten-free” practically screams at you from every prepared product box in the grocery store aisle, whether they are gluten-free substitutes for traditional products, or products that never contained gluten in the first place. Make sure you know what should contain gluten and what shouldn't, and don't be led by the box. Arm yourself with knowledge before you get taken advantage of at the checkout.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking gluten-free substitutes are not as tasty as their traditional counterparts, and cost more. Creating meals that are naturally gluten-free and don't use substitutes is a healthier and tastier option.

4. Also be wary of the 'craze'

A safe rule of thumb is to regard anything that is super-trendy with a healthy dose of skepticism. We tend to treat our diets as religions in our modern world. There is a lot of passion behind our personal decisions and a deep urge to be right about how we should eat.

I don't know why this is, but I do know that everyone cannot be right. Remember other food megatrends such as Atkins and the fat-free craze? They are called “crazes” for a reason. Let's not take leave of our senses when it comes to food, but merely strive to find what works for us and us alone.

5. Ultimately, maintain a balanced diet that works for you

There is no one dietary plan that will work for everyone. Some people will have allergies or sensitivities, some won’t. I cough every time I eat the seasoned Shreddies in the Bits ‘n’ Bites party mix. Every single time. I am the only one I know of. Do I have Seasoned Shreddie Sensitivity? Apparently. While your colleague may feel on top of the world after having yoghurt, it might give you stabbing pain. Some feel fueled after red meat, some feel sluggish. The point is because someone else is doing it and feeling great doesn’t mean you will. So try if you’re curious, and you might find that it works for you and you feel great. If you are suspicious you have food allergies and the process of elimination isn't working, get tested.

Many people hate the phrase “everything in moderation” because it’s true, and also because it’s not a quick fix and a simple solution to weight and health maintenance. Try different diets on for size and make sure you are well informed, and make what you eat food for thought, literally and figuratively.

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