It’s all the rage in recent health trends. There are new menu items in restaurants and entire aisles in major grocery stores. Yep, the gluten-free lifestyle is definitely catching on, but is it for everyone? What should you know before you quit wheat?
First things first: before we decide to blame all of our health issues on one particular element, we should probably first know what it is. For those who aren’t sure, gluten is a combination of proteins found in grains—wheat in particular. The most serious of gluten intolerances, called “Celiac Disease,” is when gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Still, many people have less severe sensitivities that can cause both digestive and non-digestive problems.
I’ve been on a gluten free diet for roughly three years now, and all things considered, it’s worked out pretty well for me. Nonetheless, here are a few things I wish I knew before I committed.
1. Gluten is Everywhere
The whole bread thing is hard to get over. Then there’s mourning your mornings of cereal, pancakes, and oatmeal, and then there’s the realization that pasta Sundays are now a bust (detract ten extra points if your family’s Italian). But after a few good minutes spent hyperventilating into a paper bag, you think to yourself, “Okay. That’s not that bad. I can do this.”
True. You can do this. But know that the invasion of gluten stretches a whole lot further than you might think, or often see. Most kitchens put flour in their soups to thicken them up. Some brands of soy sauce can contain up to 50% wheat. Even some vitamins and medications contain gluten, as it’s often used as a binder or filling agent. Long story short, you’ll become a master at reading labels and asking loads of questions at restaurants.
2. Going gluten free might prompt an intolerance.
This is a big one.
I cut out gluten as a three-month experiment while I was working at a kids’ summer camp, where GF alternatives were readily available. However, when I tried to go back to my regular diet at the end of the summer, my body would no longer tolerate it. Suddenly, I was getting flu-like symptoms whenever I ate wheat—which, before now, I had been eating all my life (seemingly) without a problem.
It turns out that lots of people might have intolerances; their immune systems are just numb to them because of constant exposure to the allergen. When you cut out gluten, you could very well find that there was a condition there all along, and now that your body’s had time to heal and repair itself, you can’t go back.
Some people view this is a good thing. You’ve found one of the root issues, and now you’re one step closer to fixing it. Other people, not so much; they just wish they could eat bagels again.
3. “Gluten Free” is not always “Healthier.”
People often assume that once they’ve cut gluten from their diets, their energy will skyrocket and they’ll miraculously drop fifty pounds. This is not necessarily true.
As a society, we eat a lot of refined wheat (and it’s arguably, along with sugar, the root of countless health problems). Unfortunately, however, the gluten free equivalents aren’t always “better.” If you’re switching out doughnuts, waffles, and cupcakes for more of the same—just made with rice flour instead—you’re getting just as much sugar, preservatives, and calories as before. Actually, sometimes they’re even worse; the manufacturers add more crap so we don’t notice the absence of our beloved gluten, and we end up gaining weight instead of losing it.
If you’re leaning toward a gluten free diet for health reasons, you’re better off avoiding grains and carbs in general. Use this opportunity as an excuse to eat more fruits and vegetables instead of the processed stuff. And speaking of the processed stuff…
4. It’s not the taste; it’s the texture.
Because of the previously stated reasons, gluten free alternatives can actually taste really good. Some of the best chocolate cakes to have ever crossed my tongue have been 100% wheatless. And sometimes, you can’t even tell the difference.
But when you can tell the difference, it’s normally not the flavor that’s off. It’s the consistency. GF chocolate chip cookies might taste like regular chocolate chip cookies, but they’re so much crumblier. GF pasta turns to complete mush if it’s just three seconds overcooked. GF pizza will forever be thin and tortilla-like, and most GF rolls bear a striking textural resemblance to kitchen sponges.
Ultimately, if you’re the kind of person that likes the taste of things like shrimp or mushrooms, but just can’t do it because of the texture, this diet isn’t for you.