By Joanne Tehrani, MPH, RD, CDN (@eatingdrinknyc)
It is very likely that you or someone you know follows a gluten-free diet (GF), or that your local grocery store has started stocking a gluten-free section. Celebrities have even turned this way of eating in to a popular trend for weight loss.
Based on my own knowledge as a Registered Dietitian and through interviewing a gluten-free blogger, I will weigh in on GF landscape and clear up a few myths.
What is gluten? Gluten is the result of two proteins combined (gliadins and glutenins), found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oatmeal. It is found in triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).
Who should follow a gluten-free diet? People who have a disease known as celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten in their diets. When gluten is present in the body, an autoimmune reaction triggers antibodies to attack the digestive system when gluten is present. Often times the small intestine gets damaged, which may lead to problems absorbing essential nutrients from food. Without treatment, celiac can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, anemia and sometimes cancer. Celiac disease is diagnosed through blood tests or a small bowel biopsy, both of which must be administered by a physician. A recent Mayo Clinic study revealed the number of people with celiac disease has risen dramatically since the 1950’s. This data goes against many theories that the numbers have risen due to more people being diagnosed. The symptoms of celiac vary greatly, and there is no way to self-diagnose celiac disease. If you suspect you have it, see a licensed doctor.
There are also people who cannot tolerate gluten and do not have celiac disease. This is known as gluten intolerance. According to the American Celiac Disease Alliance, gluten intolerance often results in a series of gastrointestinal issues and sometimes skin problems. It is not an immune response to gluten like celiac disease. Gluten intolerance is often hard to diagnose. Many people report simply feeling better after they eliminate gluten from their diet.
Because there are currently no clear labeling guidelines set forth by the FDA on what constitutes a gluten-free product, consumers must make their own decisions about whether they eat gluten-free or not. Educating yourself on how to read food labels is the best solution, this takes knowledge and discipline. Whatever your dietary choices may be, there is no denying the increased availability of gluten-free packaged foods in stores and online. According to market research, the gluten-free market has already grown to be a billion dollar industry.
This growth has many skeptics believing that following a gluten-free diet is the next fad or a sales strategy of the food industry. Recently, singer and actress Miley Cyrus tweeted that her dramatic weight loss was a result of following a gluten-free diet due to a “gluten allergy.” Unfortunately, there have been reported cases of people avoiding gluten to lose weight and avoid eating carbohydrates. This is not a recommended strategy for weight loss and in fact, gluten-free packaged foods often contain higher amounts of fat and sugar then their “regular” counterparts.
Interview with a Gluten-Free Expert
Carolyn Schaefer, MPH is a nutrition professional and gluten-free expert. She is author of the gluten-free blog, GFbird, a NYC-based gluten-free dining and lifestyle blog. She is the founder of the Brooklyn Gluten-Free Meetup, and serves as a recipe tester and consultant to both individuals and industry on navigating the gluten free world. Carolyn is a native Brooklynite and has been gluten-free for over 10 years.
I recently sat down with Carolyn who happens to be my friend and a former classmate of Hunter College’s School of Public Health Nutrition and asked her a few questions about the gluten free food world as a blogger.
Q1. To make things clear, why do you live a gluten free lifestyle?
A1. I was diagnosed with celiac disease about 10 years ago, after three years of horrible medical problems and misdiagnoses.
Q2. I have read a lot about celebrities eating GF to lose weight such as Miley Cyrus. What is your reaction to claims that people are eating GF to lose weight that might not have a physiological reason?
A2. Oy, this one gets my goat, the gluten-free as weight loss fad. Gluten-free products are usually way higher in fat and lower in fiber than their gluten-containing counterparts, so you’re unlikely to lose weight eating them. If folks aren’t eating packaged food, but are using the gluten-free diet as a framework for avoiding grains, then I’d rather they just say they are avoiding grains. Those are the people who might order GF off a menu but then sneak a bite of their friend’s wheat-filled dessert. I think it makes restaurants take GF less seriously, which can put those of us who MUST eat GF in peril when we dine.
Q3. On the flip slide, how do you feel about people claiming that gluten intolerance and celiac disease are a fad or “made up diseases?”
A3. I don’t think you can print those words here! It’s frustrating, to say the least. Thankfully, more and more people now know someone with gluten-intolerance/celiac; first degree experience with the disease tends to change perception in a way media can’t.
Q4. It seems that everywhere you look you can now purchase gluten-free packed foods? What do you think about the growth of this sector of the food industry?
A4. It’s a wonderful thing. The competition in the market has led to drastic improvement in quality and selection. Just five years ago, the only bread my people could buy was tasteless and crumbly. The pastas available? Tasteless mush. Things have come a long way in a short time – there are wonderfully soft breads, cakes, cookies and such – some so good, they’re indistinguishable from wheat-containing products. I rely on packaged goods to provide the things I can rarely consume out at restaurants anymore – pizza, pasta, etc.
There’s a trend in the GF community to do it all from scratch. As a public health girl who thinks folks should rely less on packaged foods and cook more whole foods, that resonates with me. That said, I didn’t make my own bread or pasta before I went GF, and it’s not going to happen now – I leave it to the professionals. GF baking is tricky. I used to make cakes from scratch until I went GF; now I rely on the many fabulous mixes on the market, or order from the GF bakeries popping up all over NYC.
Q5. As a food blogger, you must get approached by PR companies wanting to work with you to help promote their food product and/or brand. Do you have any words of wisdom for how PR professionals can successfully form partnerships with you?
A5. Yes! I only promote products I actually use/like and will promote the hell out of your product if I love it. I’ve been sent boxes of things I hated instead of the items I sang the praises of. My advice? Listen to your bloggers – if they are genuinely excited about one of your products, ask them to promote that particular one. Genuine enthusiasm is way better than a milquetoast post – or no post at all. Also? Know your audience! Do not send NYC residents copious quantities of anything! I’ve heard this from fellow bloggers – I think we all have a story. Mine is the company that sent me 20 pounds (20 POUNDS!) of GF baked goods right before a holiday, when I was expecting a tiny packet of samples. I was forcing treats on people left and right – I think I finally put the rest out on the street!
Q6.Finally, what are some of your exclusively favorite gluten free restaurants in New York City?
A6. The only 100% GF restaurant (save for some bottled beers) that I know and love is Cochinita in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The owner has some food allergies, so he “gets” it and I feel safe eating his delicious food.
Other favorites include Bogota Latin Bistro in Park Slope, Brooklyn and Lilli and Loo (gluten-free dumplings and spring rolls!) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Both have GF menu items clearly marked and staff that are knowledgeable about gluten-free dining issues.
You can follow Carolyn on Twitter at @gfbird