When people hear that I eat a gluten free diet because of celiac disease, there’s one common reaction: statements like, “You must eat so healthy!” or “I wish I had your willpower!”
Sure, these people might mean well. And, yes, they are right on two points: 1. Not wanting to have extreme stomach pain or fatigue (plus other unmentionable symptoms) is a great motivation to eat gluten free. 2. And, I do eat healthy foods.
The issue with their compliment? Yes, I must eat a gluten free diet…but I choose to eat healthy. Confused? Here’s exactly what I mean.
“Gluten Free” Isn’t Synonymous with “Healthy”
One of the most common errors in today’s understanding of the gluten free diet is a simple one: people often equate gluten free food to a “diet.”
And in some ways it is. One of the definitions of diet is “food or drink regularly provided or consumed,” according to the Webster dictionary. So am I on a gluten free diet? Yes, due to celiac disease, I only consume gluten free foods and drinks. However, I – like many other gluten free eaters – am not using a gluten free diet to lose weight. As a result, eating gluten free is often not a diet in the sense of being a “regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight.” Nor is a gluten free diet the secret to eternal youth or perfect health.
In fact, recent research has found that eating gluten free can increase some people’s risk of heart problems. Experts have also reported that gluten free foods commonly contain more calories, more sugar, more fats and less vitamins than their gluten-filled counterparts. So is a gluten free diet healthy? Sometimes…but often not.
So What Is the Gluten Free Diet Really For?
I can’t ignore the fact that some people do lose weight on a gluten free diet. However, those who do usually aren’t eating “gluten free.” They’re just not eating the processed gluten-filled foods – ranging from bread to cakes to cereal – that they used to regularly enjoy.
In fact, the gluten free diet really isn’t really a “diet” at all. It’s a form of medicine – the only medicine available – for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. One in 133 Americans has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which ingesting gluten causes intestinal damage. I’m one of them.
Celiac disease has over 200 symptoms, ranging from digestive issues to skin rashes to brain fog. If celiacs continue to ingest gluten for a long time, they can even experience long-term health complications like cancer, other autoimmune diseases and gluten ataxia (brain problems).
But what about all the people who eat gluten free but don’t have celiac? After all, the number of Americans who reportedly avoid gluten has tripled in the last five years…even though there’s still only around 1.76 million Americans with celiac disease. While many of those people are probably fad dieters, others may have something called gluten intolerance. What is gluten intolerance? Basically, it’s when people don’t have celiac disease but gluten still makes them feel like C-R-A-P.
The medical community has long disputed the existence of gluten intolerance. However, this is the bottom line: recent research reports that some people experience a leaky gut and chronic inflammation, both of which benefit from a gluten free diet.
Do you feel cruddy every time you eat wheat? Then a gluten free diet may be the “healthiest” way for you to eat. But if you don’t have any of the medical issues that benefit from a gluten free diet, think twice about ditching whole wheat for gluten free bread.
So How Can People Really Eat Healthy?
Honestly, one of the most frustrating parts of people equating “gluten free” to “healthy” is that they are discounting all of the work I do to eat healthy. Because, to be blunt, eating a healthy diet takes work.
It takes self-control to choose a veggie-loaded smoothie bowl over a gluten free cinnamon roll for breakfast. It takes preparation to have grilled fish and roasted veggies ready for me after my college class instead of hitting Chick Fil A for the second time that week. It takes time to retrain your taste buds and honestly prefer eating homemade granola for a night snack instead of ice cream.
And the key to eating healthy isn’t necessarily following a certain diet, whether it’s gluten free, low carb, high fat or anything in between. Yes, it’s important to find the foods that make you feel your best. For someone with celiac disease, they’re gluten free foods. For someone else, whole grains might be just as healthy.
However, personalizations aside, there are steps every person can take to eat healthy, regardless of what “diet” they feel best on. Although I’m no dietician or food expert, my journey with celiac disease and healthy eating has taught me a few tricks, like:
- Adding veggies to every meal I can, whether by putting shredded zucchini into my oatmeal (tons of volume but no veggie taste!), replacing spaghetti noodles with zoodles, or even making sliders using roasted sweet potato rounds instead of buns.
- Always having healthy snacks nearby because nothing says “face-plant-into-ice-cream” like being hangry and desperate.
- Making processed foods a staple in, but not majority of, my diet. To those who don’t eat any processed foods and feel great, I’m happy for you. In my case, I don’t have the time to cook everything from scratch (hello college + job + blog) and protein bars or scones help me get the calories I need with less bloating (’cause too much fiber can be ugly).
- Finding healthy recipes that you honestly look forward to eating. Everyone’s taste buds, caloric needs and daily schedules are different, so don’t expect to follow your friend’s meal plan and LOVE every meal (unless they’re one crazy good cook). Instead, experiment with enough recipes until you have a few solid favorites that you can regularly make and enjoy. If you actually like your “healthy” meals, you’re more likely to stick to eating healthy.
What I want people to know most about my gluten free diet? Because of celiac disease, I need to eat gluten free. However, it’s my choice to ditch fried chicken for baked fish…and you don’t have to go gluten free to make the same decision.
Do people ever assume you eat “healthy” because you’re gluten free? Can you relate to any of my points? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!
AUTHOR BIO: Casey Cromwell is the founder of Casey the College Celiac, a blog that explores life in college (and now grad school) with celiac disease. She writes about gluten free, vegan and paleo recipes; tips for living with a chronic illness; restaurant and product reviews; and general health and wellness. Find me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter!