These days, just about every food you can think of has a gluten-free alternative, from bagels to pasta to Girl Scout cookies. Heck, we've rounded up our fair share of gluten-free pizza, pancake, and muffin recipes. However its prevalence has resulted in a lot of misconceptions. Gluten-free is often thought of as a fad—or broadly associated with being "healthy"—and not everyone stops to think about what it actually means or why one should or shouldn't eat it.
We're here to clear up what gluten is, who should avoid it, and what it really means to give it up for good.
Who Shouldn't Eat Gluten
Gluten, which means “glue” in Latin, is a protein that’s mainly found in wheat, rye, and barley. It helps things like pizza dough and pasta keep their structure, and for most of us, eating it is no big deal. But that's not the case for everyone.
People with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten causes the body to attack the small intestine. This can lead to lots of bloating, abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue. For people who have it (about 1 percent of the U.S. population), a gluten-free diet isn’t a lifestyle choice but a prescribed treatment plan by a doctor. Not only do they have to avoid eating foods with gluten, but they also often have to watch out for cross-contamination (when a gluten-free food comes in contact with gluten-containing foods), both at home and in restaurants.
If you suspect you have celiac disease, it's best to see a doctor before trying a new diet. Do it the other way around—go sans gluten and then see a doc—and you could end up with a false-negative test result.
People with gluten sensitivity.
Between 0.5 percent and 6 percent of Americans have what's called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which means that though they don't test positive for celiac disease, they experience many of the same symptoms (bloating, constipation, diarrhea) and those symptoms go away (or get better) when they eliminate gluten from their diets.
This is what people are talking about when they say they have a gluten intolerance. NCGS is pretty controversial in the food and nutrition world, and some are skeptical that the condition even exists. “We can’t test for it,” says Ayelet Schieber Goldhaber, R.D., a dietitian at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Gluten sensitivity is really just based on symptoms.”
Can Anyone Go Gluten-Free?
“There’s no direct danger to eliminating gluten,” Goldhaber says.
“But anytime you’re removing an ingredient, be careful of how you’re replacing it.”
Our experts recommend sticking to foods that are naturally gluten-free—fruits, vegetables, dairy, and lean proteins. And when buying packaged gluten-free foods, double-check the label for sodium and sugar content.
Goldhaber also suggests keeping an eye on your fiber intake (a diet full of fruits, veggies, quinoa, and other non-gluten grains should do the trick) and taking a multivitamin to make sure you're getting enough vitamin D.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if you go gluten-free and end up feeling better, it’s not necessarily because you have celiac or NCGS. “I think there can definitely be a placebo effect,” says Jennifer Christman, R.D., the nutrition manager at Medifast. “You're thinking you’ll feel better and then you do feel better.”
What a Gluten-Free Diet Isn't
It's not the same thing as going carb-free or grain-free.
Though gluten is found in several high-carb foods, like wheat bread and barley, eliminating it isn't exactly the same as adopting a low-carb lifestyle.
“Fruit is gluten-free, but it’s not necessarily a low-carb food," Christman says. “You can substitute gluten with something like rice or quinoa—something that is naturally gluten-free.”
In fact, there are plenty of whole grains that contain carbs but not gluten. For instance, you might look for quinoa-rice-corn pasta, or breads and crackers made with buckwheat or sorghum.
It isn't just giving up bread and pasta.
Gluten can show up in some pretty unexpected places. “Common foods—like soy sauce—can have wheat hiding in it," says Goldhaber.
Gluten can also be found in certain types of hot dogs, potato chips, lunch meats, candy bars, salad dressings, and even prepared eggs. And since ingredient lists don't typically include the word gluten, it can be tricky to spot unless the package actually says gluten-free.
“You want to look for things that say malt extract or malt flavor,” Christman says. “Wheat, barley, rye, and brewer’s yeast are all gluten containing. And then oats. If they’re not labeled gluten-free, they might contain some gluten because of cross-contamination.”
Also watch out for anything with the words wheat starch or spelt, Goldhaber adds.
That goes for drinks as well. You’re in the clear for wine night, and most hard liquor is also safe. But you'll want to refrain from beer and similar products (ales, lagers, etc.), which are usually made from barley or rye and aren't distilled.
Thankfully there are so many more gluten-free options today than there were a few years ago, including some pretty tasty beers.
It isn't automatically healthy.
Ditching gluten doesn’t give you carte blanche to eat anything as long as it fits into the diet. “A cookie is a cookie whether it’s gluten-free or not,” Goldhaber says. “It might have sugar and some oils in it. You can have gluten-free fried chicken or French fries. It’s really about overall healthy eating."
But if you turn to whole foods and start incorporating more fruit, veggies, lean proteins, and fish into your diet, well, that's a good idea for just about everyone, Goldhaber says.
It doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss.
Maybe you’ve heard a friend or a celebrity talk about how much weight they’ve lost on a gluten-free diet. In reality, it's likely not the absence of gluten that made them lose weight.
“I think a lot of people find they lose weight, but it's probably because they're cutting out a lot of sugar and processed foods that also contain a lot of calories,” Goldhaber says. “It's really the calories that are making the difference, not the gluten.”
The Bottom Line
If you do decide to eliminate gluten, you'll want to speak to a pro first, regardless of your reason, says Christman. “People may self-diagnose,” she says. “But we always encourage people to go talk to their health care professionals before starting a new diet."
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