"I can't eat that, I'm gluten-free." This is a phrase that one of your friends has inevitably said within the last five years, and you have inevitably rolled your eyes in response. In recent years, the gluten-free diet has become a hot trend, with purported benefits including weight loss, increased energy, and overall improved health. The science behind these claims, however, does not hold up. Recent studies have shown that a gluten-free diet is mostly beneficial to those with "gluten-related disorders," such as celiac disease or a wheat allergy. Going gluten-free when not medically necessary can be detrimental in terms of nutrition and vitamin intake. Before deciding to go gluten-free, it is important to understand what gluten is and what it can do to one's body.

What is gluten?

Lilah Foster

Gluten is a general term for the proteins found primarily in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Gluten acts as a binding agent, and it is what causes the stretchiness in dough and the rise in baked goods. Gliadin, a component protein of gluten found in wheat, is the major source of adverse reactions to those who are gluten intolerant.

Who goes gluten-free?

There are several "gluten-related disorders" that can make individuals intolerant to gluten, including celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and a wheat allergy. Roughly 1% of the general population has been diagnosed with celiac, an autoimmune disease, but it is estimated that a much larger population is currently living undiagnosed. Additionally, some doctors will recommend a gluten-free diet for treatment of other conditions. Practitioners of a gluten-free diet for medical reasons have reported a better quality of life since beginning the diet.

SCU junior Madison Hagearty went gluten-free as a senior in high school per her doctor's recommendation. She had been experiencing migraines, lethargy, and low energy, so her doctor performed comprehensive allergy tests to pinpoint the issue. 

"I definitely think it did help," Hagearty says on going gluten-free. "I can see an effect now if I ever do eat a good amount of gluten in one time frame." In addition to eliminating other foods, Hagearty finds that she has, "more energy and a better mood overall" when she does not eat gluten. She reinforces her gluten-free diet with other vitamins and supplements, so the diet, for her, is part of a more holistic approach to wellness.

Fellow SCU student Zach Gionatti, on the other hand, found out that he was gluten intolerant through a blood test when he was 18. No one else in his family is gluten-free, and he had to figure out how to be gluten-free around the same time he started college. Although the temptation was there at first to continue eating regular baked goods or his family's famous sourdough hotcakes, Gionatti has since found his own favorite gluten-free versions.

Similarly, senior Evangelea DiCicco went gluten-free for medical reasons, and because many of her family members eat gluten-free at home. She finds the biggest challenge to be eating on-campus, as Benson does not have many gluten-free options, and makes no effort to limit cross-contamination. While the Cellar does offer a good amount of gluten-free snacks, it lacks in supplying actual fulfilling meals. DiCicco is required to pay for a meal plan while living on-campus, but the options at Benson are limited to salads, eggs and bacon, or grilled chicken breast.

The cafés across campus are sadly not more inclusive: "There are no gluten-free baked goods, only things like apples and peanut butter. You can't even get the prepackaged salads because they all have croutons in them." DiCicco often resorts to cooking in her dorm kitchen, and skipping meals during the day when she has a busy schedule.

Gluten-free skepticism

Because being gluten-free has become so trendy, the diet itself has naturally garnered skepticism — sometimes rightfully so. According to a study done at Harvard Medical School, the gluten-free diet is not necessarily healthier for individuals without a gluten-related disorder. Breads, cereals, and grains contain essential nutrients like B vitamins, fiber, and folate. Processed gluten-free replacement foods like desserts, snacks, and breads usually do not contain these nutrients but are rather loaded with sugar and sodium to improve the taste and texture. Avoiding gluten without medical necessity can lead to major nutritional deficiencies.

This skepticism, however, can be harmful to those who are gluten-free out of necessity. The trendiness of the diet almost seems to discredit being gluten-free as a whole. Gionatti has experience this firsthand: "Whenever I tell people I don't eat gluten they ask me if it's for sensitivity reasons or if it's for preference, and I feel that that question shows some initial skepticism that people have towards gluten-free people." Because gluten-free is now seen as an attempt to be "trendy," it is not always taken seriously as a medical concern.

What happens when certain people eat gluten?

Lilah Foster

For those with celiac disease, the side effects from eating gluten are both internal and external. Because it is an autoimmune disease, the immune system essentially attacks itself once gluten, a perceived threat, enters the small intestine. A non-celiac small intestine contains fingerlike projections called villi, which aid in the absorption of nutrients. The villi of a person with celiac disease who eats gluten will eventually become damage and blunted, leading to malabsorption, nutrient deficiency, and weight loss. Interestingly, many people with celiac disease have reported weight gain after going gluten-free as a result of their body's newfound ability to absorb nutrients.

The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet; there is no medication that can make it go away. A person with celiac disease who does not follow a gluten-free diet runs an increased risk of developing intestinal cancer, osteoporosis, infertility, and other health issues. However, maintaining a gluten-free diet can be especially challenging for those with asymptomatic celiac disease. Not everyone experiences intestinal distress or general feelings of malaise, but their small intestines and immune systems are still taking a hit.

Cutting gluten out of a diet takes discipline, and it is not easy to maintain. When there are no other options, both Hagearty and Gionatti concede that they have eaten gluten. They do notice when they have eaten it, and so do their bodies. Both have reported feeling sick afterwards, although with different symptoms.

The gluten-free diet

Lilah Foster

The gluten-free diet is more than avoiding bread and pasta. Gluten can be used as a stabilizer or flavoring in unsuspecting foods like soy sauce, ice cream, and malt. For those who have to worry about cross-contamination, like people with celiac disease, they cannot eat food that has shared a surface or utensils with gluten-containing foods. Labels on processed foods that say, "may contain wheat" or, "made in a facility that also processes wheat" should be avoided. Products like lipstick and toothpaste must be checked because they could be accidentally ingested, and medication, including Advil, is not usually gluten-free unless marked otherwise. Going out to eat usually entails calling restaurants beforehand, desperately searching Yelp reviews, and ordering a salad anyway. "Gluten-free" offerings at places like Papa John's and Shake Shack are often cross-contaminated. Many college students, including Hagearty, must also learn to navigate countries that are not as friendly to food intolerances while studying abroad.

Luckily, the trendiness of being gluten-free has led to an increased availability of gluten-free products in stores and restaurants. It takes some getting used to, but gluten-free cooking introduces a whole new world of ingredients that you never would have thought to try. Almost any recipe can be made gluten-free, like avocado toast, pizza, and all the comfort food your heart desires. With all of the options available, it's even possible to make an entire gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner.

Going gluten-free is not a universal panacea, but it is for some. While it becomes a manageable diet, it is still not a choice for many. The decision to go gluten-free should not be made lightly, as gluten is the source of many essential nutrients, and is generally healthy for most people. Talk to your doctor before you cut gluten out of your diet to ensure that it is the best option for you.