By Erin Froehlich — One of many Food blogs on SmartLivingNetwork.com
Recently, and not long after I joined a local foodie page, I was pulled into a debate over an increasingly prevalent and somewhat controversial food trend. The poster who began the discussion wondered, like many people, whether gluten-free diets were really necessary for most of the people on them (cue the disgusted conventional dietists and impassioned gluten-freeers.)
As you might imagine, there were strong arguments being made from both nay-sayers and enthusiasts – people who said it was all just nonsense and only the gullible would buy into it, and others saying it completely changed their lives and that everyone should try it. For myself though, working in the natural health industry and being familiar with arguments from both sides, my opinion fell somewhere between the two.
As I added there, unfortunately, it’s true that many people on gluten-free diets are uninformed. They start on the gluten-free path simply hoping to lose weight or because believe it’s healthier, but they don’t really understand what gluten is and it’s likely they really needn’t forsake it. If the goal is weight loss or improved health, there are most likely better routes they could take to get there. Many are unaware that the gluten-free alternative products at their grocery store are often just as high in calories, fat, and salt as traditional wheat products and that some may even be higher!
However,in that same breath, if instead of simply swapping in expensive gluten-free alternative bread products, less nutrient-dense, grain-based carbs were traded for vitamin- and mineral-packed carbs from fruits and vegetables (which also tend to be lower in fat and calories), even people who don’t need to avoid gluten are probably better off, are eating healthier, and are likely to lose weight. Further, from a health perspective, having struggled with both digestive and skin issues for most of my life, I have personally found avoiding gluten does help with my symptoms. Despite extremes on each side, my stance and story was shared by many. “If it seems to help you, go for it!” our take. While there are undeniably some silly people just following a fad, many people who have had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms see improvements on the GF diet and those results are hard to argue with.
Hard - but not impossible, as it turns out.
Almost as if on cue, the day following this discussion, a new study was released. (You just LOVE proving me wrong don't you, Universe?) As the new studies show, there’s actually more to the gluten-free effect than the gluten. The real culprit? FODMAPS.
While wheat’s protein “gluten” has been taking the heat for wheat-related health issues, researchers now feel it’s been wrongly accused. Rather, they say, it’s a specific type of carbohydrate in wheat that’s causing the problems people see – fermentable oligo-do-monosaccharides and polyols or FODMAPS, a fructan carb, for short.
In the latest study, 37 participants self-identifying as non-celiac gluten-sensitive with IBS symptoms were given a low FODMAPS diet for two weeks, then placed on a high gluten diet, low gluten diet, or control diet for one week each. (Of course, none knew which diet they were on at any point during these three weeks.) In the end, while researchers found only 8% of those claiming gluten sensitivity actually showed gluten-related symptoms, all participants – 100% - showed improvements with a low FODMAPS diet! The findings back previous studies which found similar success rates – roughly 70% of IBS patients improve on low-FODMAPS. And interestingly, IBS is said to affect 20% of Americans – close to the 18% of Americans who say they regularly purchase gluten-free products.
Of the study, William Chey, a gastroenterologist and professor at the University of Michigan says, “a number of people, including me, now feel that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a misnomer. We should be saying wheat intolerance."
But not JUST wheat intolerance. Unfortunately, if wheat causes issues for you, experts say you should probably be avoiding all FODMAPS containing foods.
Good news/bad news for those currently targeting IBS with a gluten free diet: okay, actually, let’s get the bad and probably-obvious-by-now news out of the way first – FODMAPS type fructan carbs exist in several other foods besides wheat. If you really want to make a difference, you’ll probably want to avoid those as well. Good news though, is that so long as you keep the amount of these foods to a minimum in your diet, you needn’t swear any of them off completely to get the benefits. You can eat wheat again! Pasta! Fresh baked bread, guys! (Just not too much.)
Below are two basic (and unfortunately, not comprehensive) guides to low-FODMAPS eating - what you can't eat AND, because it seems like a lot, what you can. Some trends in the "can't eats" that feel easier to remember than a long list are stone fruits (fruits with pits), milk products (minus hard cheese), sulfurous veggies (onions,garlic, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower), beans and bean-like things (beans, lentils, large amounts of nuts) and of course, wheat products. Trends among the "can eats" - citrus fruits and berries, squash, grains that aren't wheat, leafy veggies (and herbs), root veggies, and the types of cheese I use most often. Also meat - if you eat that.
Photo Credit: DailyMail
Photo Credit: DailyMail
Oddly enough, I'm reminded of those cheap perfume knock-offs as I ponder the needed sale of this new way of thinking. "If you LIKE the effects of your gluten-free diet, you'll LOVE the effects of FODMAPS!" Only in this case, FODMAPS is actually the superior product. (So, more like "If you LIKE cheap perfume from the checkout aisle, you'll LOVE this way better and more expensive version!")
News of the new studies will take time to trickle down, granted. But what can we expect when it does? Will gluten-free sections in grocery stores and restaurant menus be replaced by FODMAPS-free? Will we see the emergence of FODMAPS prepared foods and labeling? Will the gluten-freeers convert? I hate to be the cynic (Actually, that's a lie, I love it.) but I kind of doubt it. As complicated as anyone who's attempted to avoid gluten can probably tell you it is (it's in condiments and things you wouldn't expect would hold grains), there's still a simplicity in a no-this-specific-food-or-dietary-element type diet. The gluten free diet - avoid normal bread products and everything else is (pretty much) golden! FODMAPS is obviously more complicated - more foods and ingredients to worry about and more ambiguous guidance on how to follow (How low is low?). It's more work than I think the average person will want to take on, but it may actually weed out some of the "gluten-free faders" the poster in the foodie group seemed to be alluding to.
For myself, I never even fully committed to cutting gluten out of my diet. I'd try and make my meals gluten-free swapping in things like spinach for pasta, eating quinoa and rice, and when I really wanted a bread-like thing, eating the expensive gluten-free alternative bread products I was disparaging a bit ago. But I'd cheat. I'd go out and throw gluten worries out the door. I'd cave into my favorite comfort food craving, a nice, simple bowl of pasta - the good kind, made from white durum semolina wheat - not rice or corn or mystery ingredient. I try to be good, because when I'm not, I often regret it later, but will I commit to going low-FODMAPS? Probably no more than I've went gluten-free. When I'm contemplating a fruit, or veggie, or what have you, I'll think to myself "Well, this will be a better a choice for me." But in the end, if what I really want is to have some avocado, I'm going to have some avocado. A little pain for a satisfying gain. Fair trade by my book.
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