The Great Gluten Debate: Should You Give It Up?

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., lead nutritionist

I’m throwing a small dinner party for a friend this weekend. On the menu: pasta. That’s a big deal, because pasta has been food non grata for more than a year. It’s not an Atkins anti-carb thing—this time, it’s the anti-gluten movement.

It seems like everyone I know is foregoing wheat and other grains containing this protein. So why are so many people going gluten-free? None of them have celiac, a serious condition in which the immune system attacks the intestines after gluten is consumed (about one percent of Americans suffer from this condition). A few might have “gluten sensitivity,” a less harmful, but still uncomfortable condition that affects about five percent of the population. (For details on these conditions, check out What Everyone Needs to Know About Gluten.)

In fact, most people who tell me they’ve cut out gluten have no obvious problem with it. Some are going along for the ride because their spouse or child is off gluten, others think it might help them lose weight—simply cutting out bread can be quite effective for some people—and still others are convinced it’s simply healthier.

If you don’t need to avoid gluten, is there any harm in doing so?

Well, you might drive yourself crazy trying to avoid the little bits of hidden gluten in soy sauce, possibly in oats (from being stored with gluten-containing grains), in the coating of vitamin tablets, and so on. As for grains—the main source of gluten in our diet—we didn’t evolve to eat them. They weren’t on the menus of our hunter-gatherer ancestors; grains came about during the agricultural revolution, 12,000 years ago.

Of course, things have changed. We no longer have to hunt and gather our own food, and now grains—whole grains, that is—have become an important part of the diet: They give us fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, phytonutrients, and also contribute to satiety—that feeling of fullness that lasts for hours after a meal.

If you’ve given up on gluten, you can still reap some of these benefits by opting for gluten-free grains, such as brown, black or other whole grain rice; corn or whole corn meal; quinoa; and wild rice. You can do just about anything with these grains. Case in point—the mouthwatering quinoa salad and equally delicious crispy wild rice and bean patties featured here. (Note: The barley porridge recipe that’s included in this blog does contain gluten.)

And keep in mind, gluten-free grains have just as many calories as gluten-containing grains. To keep portions in check, check out this guide.

Are you—or is anyone you know—avoiding gluten? If so, why?

Also Read:

How to Eat a Gluten Free Dinner

Reading ‘Wheat Belly’ Helped Make a Healthy Change

Quinoa: A Healthy Food Worth Your Attention

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