Gluten vs Gluten-Free: What’s The Gluten-Free Diet Craze All About?

What is gluten? Why the craze to go gluten free? Is it just marketing, or is there true justification in the claim that gluten-free is ‘healthy’? Is there a difference between ‘gluten-free’ and ‘wheat free’? These are all valid questions that many people are asking. It is a huge topic, with many aspects to it. Let’s start with the first question….

Gluten vs Gluten-Free: What's The Gluten-Free Diet Craze All About?


What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat (and wheat-related grains), rye and barley. Interestingly enough, the word gluten is from Latin and actually means ‘glue’. True to its name, gluten acts like a glue to hold food together, help give it shape (such as helping bread to rise, or to thicken sauces) and it often provides a chewy texture as well.

There is a misconception that oats contain gluten. Oats are naturally gluten free. Oats can be contaminated with gluten if they are processed in a facility that also processes grains that contain gluten.

Is there a difference between gluten free and wheat free? Yes, there is a difference:

  • Gluten free means that it is free of any food source containing gluten – that includes all wheat and related wheat sources, rye and barley, and their derivatives.
  • Wheat free does not necessarily mean gluten free.Wheat free means that it does not contain wheat or derivatives of wheat, but it can still contain rye and / or barley, which both contain gluten.

Marketing craze or real health issue?

Actually, it is both! It’s all about the marketing AND all about very real health issues.

Celiac disease is a very real health issue. Foods containing gluten are a major health problem for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is when gluten causes inflammation in the small intestine, damaging the intestine and impairing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. A gluten-free diet is the recognized treatment for celiac disease. When a gluten-free diet is carefully followed, the inflammation clears up over time, the intestine will heal, and a normal, active and healthy life can be maintained. So in the case of a person with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is absolutely necessary for their health. Their gluten-free diet needs to be a good balanced diet that is not totally dependent upon highly refined, gluten-free products that are not necessarily healthy.

Another health issue is allergy or sensitivity. Some people are sensitive to gluten, or could be allergic to it even if they do not have celiac disease. With sensitivity or an allergy to gluten a person could feel unwell after eating foods containing gluten, but not have the same intestinal inflammation as people diagnosed with celiac disease. There can be a wide variety of symptoms from digestive upset, to brain fog, to feeling sluggish or lethargic. For people who are allergic or sensitive to gluten, following a gluten-free diet can be the key to better health.

So, what about the marketing? There is very little doubt that in the last couple of years food manufacturers have realized they could increase their profit margins handsomely by getting a piece of the ‘gluten free’ craze. They use cleverly produced marketing campaigns that highlight ‘gluten-free’ on their products, and consumers immediately think it is healthy. In the marketplace we can see many product labels that use combinations of words like ‘all natural’, ‘healthy’, ‘nut-free’, ‘dairy free’, ‘gluten free’, and ‘no trans fats’ to infer that a product is healthy or very good for you. The truth is that we have to actually read the fine print and the ingredient list on the label to determine if the product is actually healthy. (I see another blog in my future about reading food labels…). Many of these products actually contain harmful additives, chemicals, excess sugars and unhealthy fats. Just because a product’s label says it is ‘healthy’ or ‘gluten free’ or ‘all natural’ does not necessarily mean that it is healthy!

There’s a negative side to the gluten-free diet craze

Many gluten-free, highly refined foods have very little or no nutritional value, and actually cause health issues. Let me explain….

Many of these highly refined products are high glycemic – meaning they are made of highly processed ingredients that digest very quickly and cause blood sugar to spike and crash, also known as ‘the blood sugar roller-coaster’. This ‘roller-coaster’ forces the body to produce excess insulin, which is very unhealthy. It causes cravings and results in major degenerative health issues including obesity, diabetes, inflammation, fatty liver, high cholesterol, acid-alkaline imbalance, joint issues, digestive issues and more. When a person’s diet is full of highly refined foods like many of the gluten-free refined foods, they are missing out on healthy foods that contain vitamins and minerals that are needed for optimal health.

A healthy gluten-free diet

There really is more to a healthy gluten-free diet than just substituting the wheat for other highly refined products that have little or no nutrition. A healthy gluten-free diet needs to be a balanced diet that includes enough fiber, protein, good carbohydrates from vegetables and fruit, good fats, plenty of water and a reduced amount of highly processed foods (sugars, unhealthy fats and junk foods). A healthy gluten-free diet should not be totally dependent upon highly refined, packaged goods and baked goods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are all naturally gluten free, contain vitamins and minerals, and there’s no confusing label to read!

Many people are jumping into the gluten-free diet craze because they are misinformed. Food marketing has led people to believe that gluten-free refined foods are totally healthy. The truth is that a gluten-free diet can be totally healthy if a person chooses to eat a healthy, balanced diet, without large quantities of refined foods.

Unless a person has been diagnosed with celiac disease or they are sensitive / allergic to gluten there is probably no need to have a gluten-free diet. A healthy diet can include whole grain wheat along with plenty of fiber from fresh fruits and vegetables, good fats, healthy proteins and a reduced amount of refined and junk foods.

Have you been diagnosed with celiac disease, or are you sensitive / allergic to gluten? Are you confused about what a healthy, gluten-free diet really is? Contact me, and let’s get you going in the right direction! Out of necessity, I have been eating gluten-free for several years and I would be happy to help you out!


Informational Resources:

Celiac Disease Foundation

WebMD The Truth About Gluten  What is gluten?

Mayo Clinic Gluten Free Diet



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