I was planning for a lunch date with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. I asked her if there’s any restaurant that she prefers, and to my surprise, she suggested a restaurant famous for their vegan and gluten-free dishes. “Since when did you become a vegan? And since when did you become allergic to gluten?” I teased. She explained to me that she was trying to eat healthier. Other than being vegan and gluten-free, she is also trying to avoid GMOs in her food. When asked about her incentives, she said, “I’m just trying to live a healthier lifestyle I guess?”
Health seems to be one of the most common reasons why people switch to a plant-based and gluten-free diet. However, contrary to popular belief, a lot of these healthy diets may not be so healthy after all. Don’t get me wrong; I am all about being healthy too. I eat a balanced diet, go to the gym on a regular basis, and I make sure to take care of my mental health as well. However, I don’t think it is necessary for the majority of us to avoid gluten and GMOs.
Gluten-free diet is mainly used as a treatment for coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea, abdominal distention, and malabsorption. However, how many people are actually avoiding gluten because they have coeliac disease? Epidemiological studies have shown that only around 0.05–0.27% of the populations in the U.S. are clinically diagnosed with the disease. Though there is a small percentage of people who have a medically diagnosed sensitivity to gluten that is not fatal, most people switch to a gluten-free diet due to its popularity. In all honesty, I believe gluten-free diet is a fad fuelled by so-called online health experts, celebrities, and social media. Avoiding gluten in your diet when it is not absolutely necessary is actually very unhealthy and problematic, and I am going to explain why.
So what is gluten exactly? Simply put, gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and oat. It is gluten that gives dough elasticity and gives bread its chewy texture. In addition, wheat gluten contains a significant amount of calcium, Iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and fibre. On the contrary, many gluten-free products do not contain enough of these nutrients as traditional breads and cereals do. As a result, gluten-free diet can easily lead to deficiency in essential nutritional elements we need to stay healthy. In addition, many gluten-free products are highly process in order to get rid of the gluten. To make things worse, gluten-free is so trendy right now that most people just self-diagnose themselves with gluten sensitivity without consulting medical professionals first, while people with proper medical diagnoses are often closely monitored by health professionals when they first switch to gluten-free diets. The medical professionals will make sure everything goes right and that the patients get the nutrients they need from other alternative food sources.
“Do you have gluten sensitivity though?” I asked my friend. “I think so because after I went gluten-free I feel better, like I feel less tired?” So my friend is one of those self-diagnosed gluten-sensitivity sufferers. Now, you might ask, how do you explain the fact that a gluten-free diet did make my friend feel better physically? Well, the answer is simple: it is the placebo effect. In a recent study, researchers provided food to a group of self-diagnosed gluten-sensitive people for several weeks. The group was told that the food were 100% gluten-free, but only half of the group actually got gluten-free food; the other half got normal food. However, no one reported any symptoms of gluten-sensitivity and both halves reported similar levels of overall feeling of wellness. Therefore, it is not the absence of gluten that makes you feel better; it is all in your head.
Here’s another reason why you shouldn't go gluten-free when it’s not necessary: several scientific studies have linked the consumption of gluten wheat, barley and rye to a reduced risk of coronary heart diseases, cancer and diabetes. So basically, gluten is beneficial to our health unless one is clinically diagnosed with a gluten-related disorder.
Now let’s talk about genetically modified organisms. The most common genetically modified crops out there are soybeans, sugar beets, and corn. There has always been a heated debate around GMOs: Are they harmful to our body? It is totally expected that the public would freak out over GMOs because they seem like Franken foods; they are so unnatural.
However, sometimes, GMOs are actually healthier than non-GMO products. Pesticides and herbicides are commonly used in agriculture. Scientists have linked these chemicals to increased risks of lymphomas, soft-tissue sarcomas and lung cancer. With genetic engineer techniques, some GMOs are resistant to pests and diseases and do not require pesticides or herbicides. In this way, these GMOs benefit both the environment and our health.
Here is another example of healthy GMOs. Do you like fries? Do you eat a lot of potatoes in your daily meals? Well, do you know that when cooked at high temperatures potatoes will produce a chemical called acrylamide, a potential carcinogen? Genetically modified potatoes, on the other hand, produce 70% less acrylamide. So when you are avoiding GMOs, you can also avoiding those actual healthy benefits.
I tried to convince my friend to go consult a doctor first before she switch to a gluten-free diet, but she seemed to think that her “online research” is enough for her to make the decision. She told me she would start eating vitamin and minerals supplements to compensate for any nutrients she couldn’t get from her vegan gluten-free diet. Well, I mean, at the end of the day, what you decide to eat is your personal choice and if going gluten-free and GMO-free really makes you feel better and happier, then who am I to stop you? However, remember back in the days when diet coke was so trendy everyone believed that diet coke were healthier, but later people found out it actually made you gain more weight instead of lose weight? Remember once upon a time people also believed that replacing meals with baby food was healthy? All I am saying is that please go to consult medical professionals before following these “healthy food trends” and do not just believe everything you read on the Internet. Also remember that other than what you eat, being active and going to bed early are also important to stay healthy.