I've noticed something new in the aisles of my grocery store. Whole rows once occupied exclusively by breads, grains, cookies, and crackers have slowly been taken over by products proclaiming themselves to be "gluten free."
Gluten, the agent found in wheat that's responsible for binding it together, has come under intense scrutiny as the number of people adopting a gluten-free diet has skyrocketed in recent years. More and more, people are discovering that they are gluten intolerant, a condition that can cause:
Celiac disease, an extreme form of gluten intolerance where gluten destroys the lining of the small intestine, thus rendering a person incapable of absorbing not only gluten but also many essential nutrients, can actually be deadly.
But adopting a gluten-free diet can have health benefits even if you don't have a gluten sensitivity. Gluten, while present in nearly all grains, is most prevalent in refined grains: breads, pastas, and pastries. Gluten is also used as an additive in many processed foods. As we know, highly processed carbohydrates are quickly converted to sugar upon digestion, spiking your blood sugar and bringing on those cravings that make you yearn for more of the same unhealthy foods.
If you're considering a gluten-free diet, keep the following tips in mind:
- Make healthy substitutions. If you go gluten free by eliminating all grains from your diet, you run the risk that you won't get enough healthy carbs for optimal body function. There are plenty of grain products that provide a healthy portion of carbohydrates without wreaking havoc on your digestive system. Quinoa, buckwheat, and millet are excellent options.
- Gluten-free DOES NOT mean healthy. You can't just eliminate gluten from your diet and replace it with gluten-free versions of foods that usually contain gluten. This is akin to eating Weight Watchers fudge pops at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and expecting to look like Jennifer Hudson. In fact, many gluten-free substitutes may be even worse for you (provided you don't have celiac disease), since sugar and other ingredients are often added to processed gluten-free products to make up for the lack of gluten. Instead, you want to retrain your palate so that you no longer crave the foods you're cutting out. To do that, you need to eliminate the foods that contain gluten, not just the gluten itself.
- Be sure to keep an eye on your vitamin and nutrient intake. Gluten-free diets, and "gluten-free" food substitutes, generally contain less fiber and other essential vitamins and nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts. If you do go gluten free, be sure to account for the missing nutrients either by supplementing other fiber- and vitamin-rich foods or by taking a multivitamin.
So, what would a gluten-free meal plan look like?
Although we've learned a lot about celiac disease in the past few years, it remains massively under- or misdiagnosed. If you suspect you may be gluten intolerant, try going gluten free for a while. Most people who do suffer from gluten sensitivities notice an almost immediate improvement in their feelings of well-being. Finally, if you have a severe reaction to foods containing gluten - such as exhibiting many or all of the symptoms listed above - go to your doctor to be tested for celiac disease.
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