Is gluten free the way to be?

Read this article in the Health section of Atlas Magazine’s New Renaissance issue!

By Alexandra Fileccia

From pizza to canned baked beans, sausages to fried foods, we live in a gluten saturated world. We pour our dressing on our salads without noticing the wheat added for thickness, or we drink a glass of root beer overlooking that the ingredient modified food starch is derived from wheat. Wheat, rye, and barley, all of which contain the protein gluten, can be found in most meals in the typical American diet, which makes it difficult for people living with a gluten allergy, gluten intolerance, or Celiac Disease.

When Mason Weiser, an intern for Boston’s Weekly Dig, was 13 years old, he was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. His fatigue and frequent stomachaches stopped when he eliminated gluten from his diet. “[Living gluten free], you have to learn how to cook,” says Weiser, who is now 19, “and you have to develop a taste for cultures in which wheat isn’t the main ingredient.” A lot of Eastern cuisine, including Thai and Indian food, is gluten free because the meals are rice-based. Weiser likes to make quick meals using rice pasta and fresh vegetables, reminiscent of Asian cuisine.

In addition to having gluten intolerance, it’s also possible to have a gluten allergy, which is an immune response to gluten that can cause skin and gastrointestinal irritation as well as anaphylaxis, according to a handout that Lisa Ferreira, a registered dietician at Boston University’s Sargent Choice Nutrition Center, gives to students. A gluten allergy can be life threatening.

Boston resident Emma O’Brien, 23, has a different reaction to gluten. Her body’s autoimmune system damages the lining of the small intestine, which leads to mineral deficiencies. This reaction to gluten is known as Celiac Disease. According to celiaccentral.org, about 3 million Americans suffer from Celiac. Celiac Disease is more severe than gluten intolerance.

Living with Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance, or a gluten allergy makes it hard to “eat-on-the-go.” O’Brien needs to make meals from scratch and carry homemade snacks with her because she can’t just pick up something quick at any convenience store or fast food place.

O’Brien has to think about cross-contamination as well. One time she was babysitting a toddler at his home and decided to eat a spoonful of honey that his family had. “Immediately, the child asks for toast with honey on it– and it hits me,” says O’Brien, “there’s totally gluten in the honey from a knife that touched bread touching the inside of the jar.” She immediately got hiccups and became painfully bloated, vomiting soon after.

Kimberly Dong, project manager and research dietitian at Tufts University, says there is a lot of misinformation about gluten, especially now that it is hyped up in the media. Gluten free has turned into a new fad diet that companies are capitalizing on, saying that it is healthier to cut out gluten. “Gluten is the latest fad “scapegoat” these days,” says Dong.

Though it is not necessarily healthier to live gluten free, following a gluten free diet has forced Weiser to eat healthier. “I can’t really go for fast food anywhere,” say Weiser. “So that cuts off a whole swab of really, really unhealthy food.”

Dong says there is a lot of misinformation surrounding gluten sensitivities– the main misconception is that grains containing gluten are unhealthy. “If people focus on eating whole grain wheat products that are high in dietary fiber and within portions,” says Dong, “it can be a healthy part of one’s diet.”

“Gluten isn’t bad for everyone, inherently,” Weiser says, and someone who isn’t gluten intolerant can get the same health benefits from a gluten free diet by just being mindful of what he or she eats. Dong says someone can still get a high amount of calories and unbalanced portion of nutrients without consuming gluten, which can make a gluten free diet unhealthy.

Ferreira says gluten free versions of food sometimes contain more fat than the food made with gluten. “If there is a reason to follow the [gluten free] diet, there is a benefit,” Says Ferreira. “However, if there is none, following the diet can be an unnecessary challenge on many levels.”

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