The Ambiguity of the Gluten-Free Diet

Crunching the burgundy leaves under their boots as they scurry inside, Claire Jilek, 20, and her roommate Elizabeth Hinckley, 21, escape the assertive fall winds to enter the warm, cozy abyss that is the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market. Pumpkin pie, apple cider and cinnamon donuts aromatize the air as the overwhelming crowd stocks up on their favorite fall treats. Hinckley, however, aims straight for Tasty Bakery’s stall. Tasty Bakery, located on 416 W Huron Street in Ann Arbor, has made a commitment to provide nutritious, mouth-watering, gluten-free treats to its customers. Without hesitation, Hinkley buys and devours a gluten-free brownie, compelling her roommate to purchase one too. Though Hinckley is gluten-free, Jilek is not.

“I just feel less guilty if I’m eating a gluten-free treat,” Jilek says, “I think it’s supposed to be better for you,” she continues as she breaks off a piece of her $3 gluten free cookie and carefully places it into her mouth.

Jilek has become familiar with this diet by living with her gluten-free roommate. Although never experiencing any digestive issues with gluten herself, Jilek does believe that living gluten-free is better for one’s overall health.

“I’m not really sure what gluten does or how it works, but I’ve heard that it’s good to cut it out of your diet,” says Jilek.

A survey conducted in 2015 by NSF International, a certification organization responsible for gluten-free labeling, indicated that while 90% of Americans have heard of gluten, more than half (54%) are unable to correctly define it.

This perception that a gluten-free diet is a healthier lifestyle choice is apparent in the enormous increase in those who have began to adhere to it. A 2015 Gallup poll revealed that the number of individuals on gluten-free diets has nearly tripled over the last few years, while the number of individuals diagnosed with celiac disease has remained stagnant at .7%.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, those with celiac disease are unable to correctly digest gluten due to the activation of an immune response in the presence of gluten. This response results in the inability to absorb important nutrients like iron, calcium, zinc, niacin and many other vitamins and minerals essential to the body. Although being gluten free has proven to be beneficial to those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the effects on healthy individuals is widely disputed. In fact, some health professionals would even argue that gluten is essential in a nutritious diet and removing it may do more harm than good.

“For a healthy individual to go gluten free would be a mistake,” says Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.

Whole grains, Levin says, are health-promoting and linked to decreased risk for heart disease and obesity. Additionally, removing gluten from the diet can adversely affect gut health by eliminating a good source of probiotic necessary for digestion, she says.

“There is a huge misconception that the gluten-free diet is related to healthy weight loss, some of my patients are looking for the ‘silver bullet’ to shedding pounds and going gluten free is not it,” says Levin.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Capristo et al. reveals that a gluten-free diet significantly increases stores of fat in the body. Fats, therefore, become the primary source of fuel, rather than carbohydrates. This causes one to lose weight because fats are constantly being broken down for energy. However, this type of weight loss is a result of malnutrition and insufficient energy sources in the body, which can be misinterpreted as healthy weight loss.

Levin continues to explain that people who eat gluten free tend to consume more sugar, fat and fat calories in their diets, often lacking many nutritious vitamins, minerals and fiber. She says that those attempting to lose weight would benefit more from switching to a plant-based diet, rather than cutting out gluten. Plant based diets promote proper intake of fiber, along with various vitamins and minerals essential for healthy weight loss, she says.

While Levin explains the importance of gluten intake to maintain a healthy lifestyle, many individuals have experienced better health outcomes after voluntarily adhering to a gluten-free lifestyle. Catherine Lijinsky, a devout gluten-free advocate who recently opened a gluten-free bakery in Wahington D.C., began to follow the diet after years of digestive and metabolic issues. Tired of taking inconclusive tests at the doctor’s office, Lijinsky tried this diet as a last resort. Just weeks after going gluten-free, she noticed increases in her energy levels, better sleep and decreased swelling in her feet, which she had suffered from for years.

“The difference in how I felt was remarkable,” Lijinsky says, “I had never felt this healthy in my entire life!” Lijinsky, who has never been tested for celiac disease or gluten intolerance, observed the tremendous health benefits from this diet and felt no need to take a test to prove it.

Similarly, Alyssa Wallace, a junior at University of Michigan, has also experienced health benefits from the gluten-free diet. Wallace’s therapist recommended this diet to help alleviate some of her anxiety. After being gluten free for a few weeks, Wallace was able to notice significant changes in her anxiety levels.

“I still feel anxious at times,” says Wallace, “but my episodes feel less frequent and a little milder than before. “

When asked about her adjustment to the gluten-free diet Wallace responds, “It’s hard at first, but you get used to it. It becomes easier to find foods you like and can eat, but it does get hard paying the higher prices.”

Wallace admits to buying less food and eating smaller meals in order to afford purchasing gluten-free items. Her college student budget has been a limiting factor when going to the grocery store and buying groceries for the week, she said.

In an article published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics and Research, it was observed that gluten-free products were, on average, 232% more expensive than regular products, creating a great financial burden for gluten free individuals.

While the positive and negative effects of the gluten-free diet are still being disputed, the number of people trying it continues to rise. The percentage of Americans following the gluten-free diet is three times higher than the percentage of Americans with celiac disease and is projected to increase over the next few years, according to LiveScience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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