With the gluten-free diet fad becoming more prevalent, people forget about those who physically cannot eat gluten. Before judging those who eat a gluten-free diet or starting this type of diet, people need to educate themselves on the diet's background.
Today, “GF” labels are common on food products and menus, likely because the gluten-free community has expanded immensely in the past few years due to the gluten-free diet fad.
According to Mayo Clinic, 3.1 million Americans who eat a gluten-free diet are people without celiac disease avoiding gluten (PWAGs.) However, The Washington Post notes that clinical research from the Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center "estimates that more than half of the 3.1 million PWAGs observed in this latest study have a legitimate, non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”
According to Paula Cole, a nutritionist for Aramark on ASU's Tempe campus, there is a spectrum of different gluten disorders.
“You can go anywhere from gluten sensitivity all the way to an autoimmune disease where your body attacks itself in the presence of gluten,” Cole said.
While the reasons people choose to avoid gluten may vary, approximately 1.55 million people eat a gluten-free diet for no medical reason. While this may seem like no big deal, it often creates problems for those who do have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.
I am personally gluten-intolerant. While many places including the ASU dinning halls try to have gluten-free options, they are not always plentiful or savory. I tend to have grilled chicken, some type of potato and either a salad or soup for both dinner and lunch, because I don't want to be a bother and request an individual meal.
Many times when I order a gluten-free dish at a restaurant, the waiter will ask me if this is a preference or an allergy, because restaurants won't take the same precautionary measures for someone eating gluten-free just as a preference.
For those with gluten allergies, these precautionary measures are crucial, because there is a constant risk of having an outbreak of symptoms.
Although I do not have celiac disease, and my food can be in a cross-contaminated area, I will break out in hives if I intake too much gluten. But those with celiac disease don’t have this safety shield.
Across the world, one in 100 people live with celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that causes the body to send out an immune response when gluten is ingested, destroying the small intestine, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
An important aspect of understanding a gluten-free diet is comprehending what gluten actually is. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale — a cross between wheat and rye.”
While this definition of gluten may seem complex, gluten is basically the protein that helps foods stay together, similar to the glue used on a paper mache project.
It is commonly misunderstood that a gluten-free diet means healthier foods. Yet just because a product is marked with a GF sticker does not mean this product is the healthier alternative.
“If you just switch out your bread products, and your pasta products and whatever else, with a gluten-free alternative all you're doing really is adding extra sugar, extra fat, more calories. And so in reality you are actually hurting your health,” Cole said.
Cole said eating a gluten-free diet can be healthy, if the person replaces the gluten items normally in his or her diet with vegetables, fruits and high protein gluten-free grains.
While the gluten-free fad helped spread awareness about celiac disease and other gluten allergies, the education process should not stop there.
People diagnosed with gluten allergies and those attempting to live this lifestyle should be well-informed on the topic before starting, and gluten sensitivity research needs to continue.
Restaurants and dinning halls need to ensure they have plenty of options and a suitable variety for people living with gluten sensitivities to live a healthy lifestyle and still enjoy eating.
Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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