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Courting the Gluten-Free Lifestyle

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Why are so many people flocking to the diet? And what are some ingredient options?
By Nikola Djordjevic July 2019 Menu Innovations

You’ll see it everywhere these days—on restaurant menus and grocery item labels: “gluten-free.” From celeb hotspot and The Ivy to In-N’-Out and Five Guys, restaurants have made strides in making sure they have gluten-free (GF) alternatives. Even McDonald’s offers such options now.

When exactly did this diet trend take off? Well, it’s hard to say, but from around 2009 to 2010, the number of people consuming such products nearly tripled in the next five years. MedAlertHelp breaks these figures down into more realistic terms: One in four 4 of people aged 18 to 24 eat gluten-free foods.

And when you think about the size of the American population, that amounts to an inordinate number of people. This is quite an interesting tidbit when you also find out that there’s less than 1 percent out there who actually have celiac and need to avoid gluten.

Most of the credit for the gluten-free craze goes to the land of fad diets—you guessed it: Hollywood. With well-admired celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham taking the gluten-free route, it’s not surprising that the average Joe or Sally would be eager to try out living sans gluten, too. Even Serbian tennis star and current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic adheres to the diet. But since you’re here, it’s likely not about the who’s who of GF dieting you’re concerned about. The question foremost on your mind is probably whether or not this diet is right for your customers, so let’s dive right in. Here's an infographic also to check out.

The Advantages of Going Gluten-Free

First off, what’s so bad about gluten? Quick answer: nothing. Unless you have any of the conditions that cause a sensitivity to the proteins it contains. In cases such as celiac disease, the gluten proteins cause an autoimmune response. To put it plainly, the body attacks itself, inflicting damage on the small intestine. If you find yourself still having negative reactions to gluten without having celiac or any other of gluten-sensitive diseases, you may have developed gluten sensitivity instead.

Weight Loss. In avoiding gluten, most people wind up eating less processed foods like bread and unhealthy snacks. They opt for fresher options such as salads and fresh fruit instead. However, the food industry has capitalized on the GF trend and there is now a $4.6 billion global market for GF foods, not all of them are healthy and a majority of them are processed.

Healthier Gut. It turns out that even without a gluten-sensitive disease, a GF lifestyle may still help your digestive system. A randomized trial in Denmark was conducted on non-celiac sufferers. It found that participants who followed a low-gluten diet experienced improved digestion and lessened bloating that researchers tie to an improved bacteria microbiome in the gut.

Higher Energy Levels. It’s not uncommon to feel lethargic after consuming a large portion of gluten foods like pasta or rice. What most people don’t know, however, is that this can signify sensitivity to gluten. If you’re one of those people who have this reaction, then going gluten-free should help. A 2014 study conducted on non-celiac, gluten-sensitive people found vast improvements in energy levels once the individuals were on a completely GF diet. And this was the case for nearly a third of the participants.

“So Should I Go Gluten-Free?”

In all honesty, the opinions are mixed. If gluten isn’t affecting your life negatively, removing foods that contain wheat, barley, rye, and triticale may cause nutritional deficiencies in your diet. Why is that? Most people don’t realize it, but many fortified gluten products have become major sources of vitamins and minerals. If you choose to do so, we encourage you to consult with a dietitian or your doctor. Meanwhile, here are some ideas on how to go about kickstarting a gluten-free menu:

Gluten-Free Alternatives

  • Pancakes made of cornmeal
  • Tamari instead of soy sauce
  • Polenta or quinoa instead of couscous
  • Rice crackers instead of normal crackers
  • Mashed potato, squash, or cauliflower as a pizza crust
  • Almond, coconut, sorghum, chickpea, and rice flours
  • Corn tortillas, lettuce, or collard greens as a replacement for flour tortillas

Foods to Eat to Get Key Micronutrients

Iron: Shellfish, organ meats such as liver, legumes, and of course, spinach

Calcium: Milk, dairy products, nuts and seeds, turnip greens, kale, and Chinese cabbage

Riboflavin: Liver, crimini mushrooms, kidney, and brewer’s yeast

Zinc: Crab, oysters, and various seafood, as well as tofu, milk, nuts, and seeds

Magnesium: Dark green veggies such as spinach and broccoli, legumes, dried apricots, and other fruits, and soy products

Folate: Leafy vegetables such as spinach and romaine lettuce and sunflower seeds and fruits such as oranges, bananas, and grapefruits

Fiber: Blackberries, apples or pears with skin, dried figs or prunes, flaxseed, chia, teff, quinoa, and brown or wild rice

Thiamin: Trout, bluefin tuna, pork, beef, and yogurt

Niacin: Animal products, asparagus, mushrooms, broccoli, and leafy vegetables

Vitamin B12: Fish, shellfish, milk products, poultry and eggs, and gluten-free nutritional yeast

Vitamin D: Cod liver oil, egg yolk, salmon, tuna, or sardines

Phosphorus: Pinto, garbanzo, soy and black beans, brown rice, rice bran, beef, pork, lamb, and seafood

Managing a GF Diet

If you’ve read the lists above, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed by how much food you actually wind up having to cut out of your diet (or off your menu). Managing your intake of key nutrients can also seem like a complicated undertaking. On the upside though, vitamin supplements help support such efforts. 

And, as we mentioned, the market for gluten-free foods is huge nowadays. For people with celiac, the options are looking much better than what was available if you time travel a decade into the past, and restaurants can earn loyal guests by making it easy for consumers. Multigrain cereals and breads, snack bars and chocolate cookies, and even microwaveable foods are now available at most grocery stores and can find their way onto menus.

Nikola Djordjevic, MD, Head of Content at MedAlertHelp.org. Coming from Serbia, Nikola is a doctor of medicine who started this project in 2018 out of his passion for helping others, particularly seniors. Apart from reviewing medical alert systems, he also writes a blog dedicated to health, aging, retirement, and other senior-related topics.