If your body can process it, you’re not getting any healthier by skimping on it—and you might even be hurting your performance.
I’ve never been one to follow—or even see the point of—trendy diets. Completely restricting certain foods or ingredients would only make me want them more, and this way of eating only seems to work for a short amount of time before you’re huddled in a corner shovelling an entire box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts down your throat.
As you can probably guess, I’m more of an “everything in moderation” kind of girl.
The diet trend I don’t understand the most? Going gluten-free when there’s absolutely no reason for you to do so—as in, you don’t have a gluten allergy, sensitivity (also called an intolerance), or celiac disease.
First things first: What is gluten anyway? According to Abby Olson, R.D., Minnesota-based licensed dietitian and owner of Encompass Nutrition, gluten is the combo of proteins that come together in wheat that give the dough its raised height and elastic texture. So, in addition to bread, you can find gluten in things like pasta, crackers, and even candy and processed meats.
With a gluten allergy, a person might experience symptoms like itching and swelling in their nose and throat, a rash, wheezing, or anaphylaxis, according to the United European Gastroenterology Journal.
With a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, a person might experience GI issues like gas or bloating, joint inflammation, fatigue, or mood changes when eating foods that contain gluten, says Olson.
Celiac disease, Olson says, is a more serious version of an intolerance. It tends to be genetic, and is caused by an autoimmune reaction where your body attacks the gluten proteins, which can damage your small intestine—an organ that’s responsible for nutrient absorption. When you can’t break down nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12, you might not have enough energy or muscle power to conquer those tough workouts. It’s really pretty rare, though, affecting just 0.7 percent of the entire population in the U.S., according to a study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Blood tests, genetic tests, and endoscopies can all be done to diagnose celiac disease, and blood or skin-prick tests to ID an allergy, but if you suspect that you have a sensitivity to gluten, that’s more trial and error, according to Olson—adding and removing foods from your diet to see which ones ease your symptoms and which ones make them worse.
These are all legitimate reasons to avoid gluten—bread is great, but not feeling like your insides are being torn apart (or, in the case of celiac disease, avoiding possible longterm damage) is even better.
What I think is ridiculous is when people who don’t have any problems with gluten stop consuming it just so they can “be healthier.” And more and more people have been doing it: In the same Mayo Clinic Proceedings study, the percentage of people without celiac disease following a gluten-free diet reached 1.7 percent in 2013-2014, more than tripling from 2009-2011.
That “healthy” line of thinking doesn’t make much sense: Gluten isn’t unhealthy if your body can process it—and a new study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, only confirms this. Researchers found that those who were never diagnosed with any kind of gluten intolerance never experienced any symptoms after consuming 14 grams of gluten daily for two weeks.
Plus, the foods that contain gluten aren’t necessarily bad for you, either—especially if you’re an athlete. If you’re consuming gluten in the form of whole grains on a regular basis, you’re less likely to be overweight and suffer from the chronic diseases caused by obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease, according to one study published in the British Medical Journal. Whole grains can even help decrease your risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as colorectal cancer and neck cancer.
What’s more, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that for every 90 grams (three servings) of whole grains you eat, you decrease your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 22 percent, cancer by 15 percent, and stroke by 14 percent.
Whole grains are also your muscles’ primary fuel source when you run and cross train because of their carbs. If you don’t consume enough carbs, you’ll hit the wall pretty damn fast. And whole grains contain other nutrients your body needs, too, such as fibre, B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, and magnesium—all of which are necessary to improve your performance as a runner.
While processed carbs in cake and cookies aren’t the best for you, again I say, “everything in moderation.”
Gluten-free products, on the other hand, tend to be stripped of the nutrients whole grains provide. And according to Olson, gluten-free products may contain added sugars to enhance flavour. Over time, consuming too much added sugars in your diet can up your risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.
So why is everyone afraid of gluten? “People are searching for ways to feel better, and this goes hand-in-hand with the low-carb trend,” Olson says. “The idea of reducing carbs for weight loss took a detour into the idea that if you just avoid gluten, you’ll feel better. There has been a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about that.”
If you’re having GI issues, don’t just look at gluten first, Olson says—there are tons of other reasons your stomach might be acting up. For instance, FODMAP foods such as certain dairy, fruit, and vegetable products could actually be the culprit. If you are trying to lose weight, continue exercising, pay attention to your portion sizes, and add more probiotics and unprocessed foods to your diet.
And hey, if it turns out that gluten is the source of the problem, then by all means, eliminate it from your diet. But if not, for the love of god, stop with the trendy diets already and enjoy everything gluten has to offer. I’m begging you.