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What's up with gluten-free all of a sudden?

Posted Nov 08 2010 12:00am
I’ll be honest: not long ago I considered gluten-free eating to be just another fad diet. Of course, I understood that people with celiac disease -- in which the body treats gluten as a foreign invader -- must avoid wheat and other gluten-containing foods or suffer serious health consequences. Suddenly, though, it seemed like everyone and their dog was claiming to be gluten intolerant. Supermarket shelf tags identifying GF products sprung up like mushrooms. So did websites, books, and blogs devoted to the GF lifestyle.

As faithful readers know by now, I despise food rules. The minute you tell me I can’t have something, I automatically want it. So what if I haven’t even thought about ice cream in months? If I knew I couldn’t have ice cream ever again, I would suddenly crave it with the intensity of a thousand suns!

That’s why, for a long time, I didn’t want to have anything to do with gluten-free. Not if it meant blacklisting some of my favorite foods, like sourdough bread, veggie pizza, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. Putting food on a pedestal with a big sign saying “don’t touch” is how I got into trouble in the first place.

On the other hand, I’d been coping with vague, undiagnosable digestive problems all my life, and they seemed to be getting worse as middle age crept up. Meanwhile, I kept reading how eliminating gluten from your diet can improve such symptoms.

An experiment

About a year and a half ago, I decided: what the heck, I’d cut out gluten for one week and see if it made any difference.

Frankly, I didn’t see a dramatic improvement in my symptoms, probably because I didn’t even make it through one full week of GF eating. It just entailed too much thinking about food. I didn't want to think about food. I returned to my former eating habits -- which were, after all, pretty healthy -- and got on with my life.

Last summer, still dealing with chronic stomach aches, I decided to give gluten-free another shot. This time, I stuck with it, and after about two weeks, I started to feel noticeably better. The improvement was significant enough so that giving up bread didn’t seem like such a hardship after all.

By the way, finding gluten-free substitutes for the foods I used to eat is no longer the challenge it was even 18 months ago. The gluten-free section in my grocery store seems to expand by the week, and I’ve managed to create a reasonable facsimile of my favorite homemade chocolate chip cookie recipe with GF flour. On the whole, though, I’m not eating as many processed carbs as I used to. Which can only be good, don't you agree?

I don’t think gluten-free is a fad anymore. I’ve heard so many people say they’ve had longstanding health problems resolve by avoiding gluten that I’m starting to wonder if the majority of us might be gluten-intolerant and don’t realize it.

Why now?

What’s the reason behind this sudden wave of gluten intolerance? Haven’t we humans been eating gluten-containing grains for thousands of years?

Well, agriculture has only been around for about 10,000 years. We were hunter-gatherers for many millennia before that, eating mostly meat, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. For the vast part of our evolutionary period, grains comprised a very small part of our diet. Some researchers speculate that our digestive systems may not have adjusted completely to this shift.

Meanwhile, in the past few decades, crop hybridization has boosted the gluten content of grains higher than it used to be. And the proportion of grains in our modern diet continues to rise. Fifty years ago, people ate bacon and eggs for breakfast and meat and potatoes for dinner. Our current diet leans more heavily toward bagels, muffins, pizza, and pasta.

Might you be gluten-intolerant? If you have otherwise unexplained health problems, particularly digestive issues, headaches, joint pain, or skin rashes, it’s worth avoiding gluten for a couple of weeks to see if it helps.

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy real pizza or pasta ever again. Believe me, I know enough about how my mind works that I’m not about to ban those things permanently from my life. Right now, though, it makes me feel better not to eat them. How about you?

For more information on gluten intolerance and celiac disease, visit . And check out Gluten Free Cooking School for helpful tips and recipes.

©2010 Make Friends With Food
This post is linked to Monday Mania
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