For 33-year-old Natalie Middleton, meal times have become all about substitutions.
She swaps out her oatmeal and berries for a breakfast smoothie made with a green vegetable. She gave up soups and sandwiches for salad lunches. And casserole dinners are replaced with fish and vegetables.
About four months ago, Middleton adopted a gluten-free diet. But she doesn’t have celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, or any food allergies.
Instead, she’s following the advice of a trainer who suggested the Vancouver woman ditch the processed food. Middleton also cut out dairy and most grains.
So far, Middleton said she’s been happy with the results.
She no longer feels sluggish in the afternoon after eating lunch, and her energy level in general has gone up. Her skin is clearing up and she’s slowly dropping some extra pounds.
“I’m still getting used to eating different things,” Middleton said. “So much of it’s habitual.”
“Gluten sneaks into a lot of stuff,” she added.
Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. Some common foods that contain gluten include bread, cakes, cereal, cookies, imitation meat or seafood, pasta, salad dressing, sauces, soups and processed lunch meat, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While cutting gluten out of her diet has been challenging at times, Middleton said she’s finding ways to substitute gluten products with those without the protein.
“It doesn’t really have to be complicated,” she said.
Gluten-free diets do require planning, though, Middleton said. She chops vegetables for snacks, packages the various ingredients for her salads and makes batches of gluten-free muffins — all to make daily meal-making a little less time consuming.
As more and more people turn to gluten-free diets, whether for medical or other reasons, the number of gluten-free products has grown. Breweries now offer gluten-free beer. Pizza places serve pies with gluten-free crust. And grocery stores sell gluten-free salad dressings and cookies.
But gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.
“You can eat a junk-food version of a gluten-free diet,” said Jendy Newman, registered dietician at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.
Gluten-free foods, like foods containing the protein, can be processed, she said.
Gluten-free diets also make it challenging to get an adequate amount of dietary fiber, said Robin Hammon, registered dietician at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. Getting rid of gluten-containing grains also eliminates nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin E and phenolic acids, she said.
However, if the person is going gluten-free in an effort to cut back on processed foods and junk foods such as pastries, cookies and pizza, then Newman said it could be beneficial.
“In our industrialized food culture, I think we have over-processed things,” she said. “Wheat- and gluten-containing things have been one of those items, along with high-fructose corn syrup.”
Stasha Hornbeck, registered dietician at Kaiser Permanente, said she’s seen an uptick in the number of patients coming into her office asking about gluten-free diets. Over the last year or so, it’s become the latest fad diet, she said.
While there’s not much scientific evidence to support health benefits to ditching gluten for people who aren’t gluten sensitive or intolerant, Hornbeck said, eating less processed foods is always beneficial.
“I guess it’s a call for all of us to eat less processed foods,” she said.