*Disclaimer: Nutrition WOD is not affiliated with CrossFit, Inc.
If there was a diet buzzword award ceremony, gluten would certainly have won 4 years in a row.
In the grand tradition of low-fat, low-carb, no-carb, and other odd diets, gluten free still a very popular diet choice even as we wrap up 2015. In fact, an infographic I recently read (see it here), said 1,516 new gluten-free products were introduced just between July 2012 and July of 2013. Obviously, this type of growth is market driven which means there are still a lot of people who correlate going gluten free with eating healthier. Except, it isn't. To make matters worse, the people who are giving up gluten for health benefits might actually be hiding a real gluten allergy and have undiagnosed Celiac Disease.
Let's look at 3 big reasons not to give up gluten.
Gluten is in a lot of foods that contain essential nutrients
Fiber, folic acid, vitamins, and minerals are all typically lacking when a person decides to go gluten free and does not take extra care to ensure they are getting these nutrients elsewhere. This is mainly due to gluten-free products being made with refined grains which are lower in nutrients. Now, some products are fortified or enriched with these missing nutrients. The problem is a consumer would have to rely on the food packaging instead of just consuming foods with these nutrients in the first place. And there are a lot of foods with these nutrients from fruit to vegetables to nuts. So while it is completely possible to maintain a nutrient balanced diet even after going gluten free, the statistics show many people do not.
Gluten Free does not equal healthy eating
In the past, the reason people probably felt better after going gluten-free was that they had also given up a lot of desserts, fast foods, and processed foods and replaced them with fruits and vegetables. This is called eating real food and it will make just about everyone feel better. The problem is many people still associate the positive changes in feelings or weight loss to gluten and not the overall improvement in their lifestyle.
To make matters worse, gluten free products are often junk food disguised to look like healthier options. A quick Google search turned up Gluten Free Chocolate Vanilla Wafers, Gluten Free cake mix (that was all decked out in green packaging to give the impression of healthy), and Gluten Free Cheetos (with the world Natural printed over a brown bag with rolling hills of grain behind it). So if somebody goes grocery shopping and opts for gluten free products over others, they might be actually eating a lot less healthy than before.
You may be masking an actual problem
One of the less talked about reasons to not go gluten free isn't because of the misleading health benefits, but because there are a lot of people who actually do have a sensitivity to gluten, or worse, an allergy and don't know it. In fact, it is estimated that while 1% Americans have diagnosed Celiac Disease, another 1.5 million people are undiagnosed. And that means that simply giving up gluten can mask the real danger. Plus, Celiac is a genetic autoimmune disease which means it can be passed down to your children and raise the probability that they too might have the disease. However, you won't know the real answer with out getting a blood test and possibly a biopsy.
Get tested if you do have a gluten sensitivity
OK, so you might think we are contradicting ourselves here. First, we are saying that you probably don't need to avoid gluten in a healthy diet, but then we say you should get tested anyway. Here is the deal. If you suspect that you have a gluten sensitivity, you should actually go get the blood test first before trying an elimination diet. The reason is the test results can be affected and return a false negative if you have been actively avoiding gluten for weeks or months prior to the test.
However, if the test comes back negative and you have not already attempted to remove gluten from your life, an elimination diet is a good way to test any sensitivities. We have to stress that you must be diligent in removing all gluten during this time. After several weeks, reintroduce gluten and monitor for any changes in digestion, headaches, weakness, or otherwise. If you find a difference between not eating gluten and eating it, you might be a good candidate for a gluten free lifestyle without actually having Celiac Disease. For the rest of us, eating gluten is not dangerous or harmful. In contrast, we get a lot of essential nutrients from foods that contain gluten. The key as always is to eat real foods and stay away from processed foods, fast foods, and sugary desserts.