If you haven’t noticed, gluten-free is the diet of the moment. Suddenly, everywhere from chain restaurants to your local deli advertises a gluten-free menu. Is it just hype, or is a gluten allergy now far more common?
There’s no easy answer. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, 3 million Americans have celiac disease and 18 million have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Given those figures, it’s no surprise that more and more people are choosing to cut out gluten. Even those without a medically diagnosed condition claim they feel better without gluten. So if you have any of the symptoms of celiac disease, which include fatigue, headaches, and bloating, among a number of others, why not try cutting out gluten for a week?
Gluten-free eating is not as simple as just omitting bread, cakes, and pastas. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, which are far more prevalent than you’d expect. Gluten manages to sneak into a lot of foods, from soy sauce to salad dressings. Make sure you read labels and look out for some key suspects. These include:
Luckily, there are gluten-free substitutes for most foods, including gluten-free pizza, pasta, and beer. But a number of these foods have little nutritional value, consisting of white starches made from potato, tapioca, or rice. Just because it doesn’t have gluten, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Rather, a number of gluten-free products rely on chemicals or highly processed ingredients to mimic the consistency and texture of gluten. A loaf of gluten free bread can have over twenty ingredients, including maltodextrin and mold inhibitors. Do you really want to be eating those?
Instead, substitute something that is naturally gluten free, like rice crackers. Use your gluten-free diet as a way to try new foods, like millet, teff, and amaranth. These grains are packed with nutrients and are excellent alternatives once you get sick of brown rice and quinoa.
Giving up gluten also gives you an opportunity to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, meat, fish, and legumes into your diet. These foods are all naturally gluten free and are far better for you than white bread, pizza, or cake.
If you approach a gluten-free diet with the right attitude, it’s more about expanding your options instead of limiting them. Think of it as a challenge, a way to try new foods, not a burden. You know what a regular pound cake tastes like, but what about one with sorghum and brown rice flour? There’s only one way to find out.
Hillary Pollak is a senior at New York University, where she studies sustainable food. She is currently loving tomato season.