Jane Says: Think Twice Before Hopping On the Gluten-Free Bandwagon

A gluten-free diet makes sense if you have celiac disease or wheat allergies, but it might not make sense for everyone else.

If you don't eat bread, what do you slather butter on? (Photo: Bill Deering/Getty Images)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I’ve lost weight and feel better after eliminating most wheat out of my diet, but have been given grief by a few who think that because I’m not celiac, there’s no reason to eliminate wheat and gluten. Your opinion on taking wheat and gluten out of a diet?”

—Michelle Miller

What we choose to eat is one of the most important and personal decisions we make. Consequently, I’m stunned and amazed at folks who think nothing of criticizing these decisions made by family members, friends, colleagues, or the individuals they meet in the Comments field of a website. Their behavior is extremely rude. And, unless you are seriously harming your health, it’s nobody’s business but yours.

As far as giving up wheat is concerned, I think about taking the plunge every year about this time, when New Year’s resolutions begin to germinate. But then I come to my senses. After all, we live in an age in which artisanal bread—made by hand in small batches, often from wheat that’s been locally grown and milled—has never been more delicious or more widely available. What am I, crazy? And besides, if I gave up wheat, I’m not sure what I would slather butter on.

Of course, I am extremely fortunate in that I have the constitution of a horse. I can only imagine what people who suffer from celiac disease—an autoimmune condition that has a genetic basis and can develop at any point in life—have to go through. Those who have been diagnosed (with the help of blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine) know that they must avoid all products containing gluten, the major protein found in wheat and related species such as rye and barley, Kamut, and spelt. For people with celiac, glueten acts as a trigger, signaling their bodies' immune system to attack their own healthy tissues, especially in the small intestine. That means they are at risk for malabsorption of vitamins, minerals, and calories. Long-term consequences may include osteoporosis, other autoimmune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis, and even gastrointestinal cancers. Pretty scary stuff, in other words.

A wheat allergy, like any allergy (shellfish, peanuts, danders, etc.) is the over-reaction and response of the immune system to the external factor itself. Wheat allergies are primarily seen in children and can be confirmed with an allergy test. Although the reactions can range from surprising or unpleasant (projectile vomiting) to life-threatening (anaphylactic shock), generally speaking, sufferers won’t have the intestinal damage that leads to long-lasting effects, and the allergy is often outgrown by adulthood. When one lucky 17-year-old I know was told that he could enjoy pasta Bolognese or a slice of birthday cake with impunity, he said the news was more freeing than being handed the keys to the car. And because he grew up eating, and enjoying, other grains such as amaranth, it sounds like he’ll automatically balance his wheat consumption with everything else in his carbohydrate repertoire.

The terms wheat or gluten intolerance or wheat or gluten sensitivity are often used to mean celiac disease, but the current trend is to make this a separate category. Some sufferers, for instance, exhibit the very real symptoms of celiac disease or a wheat allergy but their test results are not conclusive. In other words, if your symptoms disappear after eliminating wheat from your diet, then by all means do so.

My own personal and decidedly nonscientific take on this? I think that many people just eat too much refined wheat, period, and don’t embrace the variety of other grains that are as far away as the local co-op. Think about it: In a single day, many of us will eat a bagel, English muffin, or toast (even whole-wheat) for breakfast; a sandwich for lunch; and pasta for dinner. Do that on a regular basis, and that adds up to a whopping amount of refined wheat in our diet. Perhaps our bodies simply need a break. I, for one, have a lot to learn from a 17-year-old.

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