In the late '90s, I was teaching culinary students about a gluten-free diet for people with a medical condition called celiac disease. Back then, gluten was foreign, and the idea of not eating pizza, bread, or pasta was absurd.
Today, 20 years later, going gluten-free has gone mainstream—and not just for those with medical conditions that might necessitate it. Most people looking to lose weight or become healthier have probably at least once wondered whether or not they should ditch gluten.
So, should you? We discuss everything you need to know and consider.
What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten is a combination of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, found in wheat, rye, and barley. It can show up in everything from pasta to cookies to soy sauce to beer. (Though oats don't naturally contain gluten, they're often processed in facilities handling products that do, so they can sometimes contain traces of gluten as well.)
Who needs gluten?
Well, no one, really. “Because gluten is just a protein found in a handful of grains, there’s no amount of it required to maintain optimal health,” says Gretchen F. Brown, R.D., author of the Fast & Simple Gluten-Free cookbook and the gluten-free kumquatblog.com.
Of course, going GF is necessary when celiac disease is present and for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For them, “taking gluten out stops the immune system from reacting and causing the [200-plus] symptoms that ensue,” says nutrition expert Rachel Begun, R.D.N. “But for people who don’t have to avoid gluten for medical reasons, removing it from the diet, in and of itself, won’t make for a healthier diet or contribute to weight loss."
So, going gluten-free is no magic bullet?
Sorry, no. Plus, if you do go GF you may end up getting less of some nutrients you need—and more of junk you don’t.
Why? First, because whole grains containing gluten, like whole wheat, barley, rye, bulgur, and freekeh, naturally contain a variety of nutrients, including fiber, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium.
Second, many baked products and cereals with gluten have had B vitamins, iron, and fiber added to them. Gluten-free products, on the other hand, “are often made with white-rice flour and starches, not enriched like their gluten-containing counterparts, so they can be lower in nutrients and higher in fat, sugar, and calories,” says Shelley Case, R.D., author of Gluten Free: The Definitive Resource Guide.
Bottom line: If you decide to go entirely GF get used to reading food labels, and make sure your diet is well-rounded enough to provide all the nutrients your body needs.
Go against the grain
Want to be gluten-free? Swap these into your diet:
For hot cereal: Quinoa, GF oats, sorghum
For side dishes and salads: Rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa, sorghum
For baking: Almond flour (the best to start with); flours made from coconuts, nuts, or beans. (Note: You can’t typically replace regular flour one-for-one with GF flour, so GF baking takes a certain amount of trial and error.)