Gluten-free health trend misunderstood by most

Going gluten-free is the latest diet trend. Both nationwide and in Oswego, the availability of gluten-free products is growing to accommodate those who need them. But there is a misconception. Contrary to what many people think, going gluten-free is not healthy—at least not for everyone.

“People think it’s like another diet, like a low-carb or South Beach,” said Sarah Formoza, Oswego State’s registered dietitian. “Overall there’s no reason to go on a gluten-free diet unless you need to medically avoid the grains. Otherwise you want to make sure you’re getting your whole grains, and a lot of time that’s from wheat and oats.”

Formoza said that parts of a gluten-free diet can be beneficial, such as eating fruits and vegetables.  But many necessary nutrients come from whole grains, and she said avoiding these foods if you don’t need to is simply unnecessary.

“Gluten can be found in so many strange places that to try to avoid it, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” Formoza said. “If you don’t need to, there’s no sense in trying to.”

According to NPD Group, 28 percent of American adults are trying to cut back on or avoid gluten.  This number, about one in every four adults, is much larger than the number of people who need to avoid gluten for medical reasons.

There are two groups of people who need, for medical reasons, to avoid gluten: those with celiac disease, and those with a gluten-intolerance. People with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes sensitivity to gluten, are forced to avoid gluten and can have a serious reaction if it’s accidentally consumed. An estimated one in 133 Americans is affected by celiac disease, according to University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

Those with a gluten-sensitivity, or intolerance, feel sick or bloated unless they cut gluten from their diet. That’s what happened to Oswego junior Amanda Bintz, who felt sick for months before deciding to try a gluten-free diet.

“By the second day I felt perfectly fine,” Bintz said. “It was amazing.”

But when she went to the doctor to have her blood work done, it did not show that she had celiac disease or an intolerance. Bintz said her doctor advised her to continue her gluten-free diet anyway, since that’s what made her feel better.

Formoza said that students who suspect they have either celiac disease or a gluten intolerance should have their blood work done first. They can have this done at Mary Walker Health Center.

“What I recommend is, don’t just try the gluten-free diet on your own,” Formoza said. “If the doctor recommended it, then OK. But the biggest thing is you want to get tested for it before you would follow it. Because, if not, then the test can come up negative, because they’re already off gluten. “

Celiac disease is under-diagnosed. In fact, the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center estimates 97 percent of those affected are undiagnosed. This makes it even more crucial that students who suspect the disease go to the doctor, especially since 34 percent of those who develop celiac are more than 20 years old.

Living with a gluten-free diet can be challenging, but, fortunately for those who are forced to, the trend has a positive result: there are now more gluten-free options.

Senior Breanna Baker, who was diagnosed with celiac disease seven years ago, has been living a gluten-free lifestyle much longer than the trend has been around. But now she, and her family, are benefitting from its effects.

“There’s so much more, and that is really nice,” Baker said. “Before, when my sister was first diagnosed, my mom used to make her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with rice cakes, because the bread was like cardboard. But now there’s so many options.”

According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, more than 2,000 gluten-free food items are now available in grocery stores. And the rise of gluten-free food isn’t expected to stop. The National Foundation for  Celiac Awareness reports that the sales of gluten-free products will exceed $5 billion by 2015.

In Oswego, the life of a gluten-free student is getting easier too. For those with off-campus access, the health food store, Green Planet, sells gluten-free products. Some local shops in Oswego are adding gluten-free options, like the Coffee Nook, which opened last year.

Aleta Walborn is a co-owner of the Coffee Nook with Sharity Bassett. Walborn said that Bassett had the idea for offering gluten-free baked goods after seeing the trend grow in Colorado.

“As soon as we started offering it, it just opened up. There are so many people who are either sensitive to gluten or have celiac,” Walborn said. “I’ve had so many people come in who say, ‘I heard you offer gluten-free and vegan products’ and that astounds me. I never knew it could be that big.”

Walborn said the gluten-free products are popular with many customers. Even those who can eat gluten try the gluten-free products.

The Coffee Nook sells a variety of fresh-baked, gluten-free treats, including cookies, brownies and muffins. They are baked from scratch on a daily basis, just like the products with gluten.  Walborn said she is proud that the Coffee Nook’s gluten-free peanut butter cookie has a total of just four ingredients, showing food doesn’t have to be processed to be gluten-free.

“I feel good about that,” Walborn said. “I feel good that I’m offering that for people, because I’ve always been into health anyway, but knowing that I can share that is really important.”

Bintz has been to the Coffee Nook and said that when she tried one of its cookies, she was impressed.

“Their cookie was delicious,” Bintz said. “It was a peanut butter cookie and it had pieces of peanuts in it. It was really good. “

Starting this year, gluten-free students who are limited to the dining hall’s options will also have more choices. Now there is a designated gluten-free area in every dining hall with gluten-free products like bread, cereal and snacks. There are also new full-meal options, including pasta dishes.  Students can special order these by calling ahead to the dining hall.

Baker said she utilized the gluten-free dining hall options when she lived on campus, but wishes they had advertised it more at the time.

“I was sticking to straight salads and not knowing,” Baker said.

Formoza has also been compiling a list of all the food in the dining hall that is naturally gluten-free. The list isn’t complete, but it’s growing.

“This is my third year here, and since I came here we’ve always had gluten-free food,” Formoza said. “But I think the new thing about this year is that we are really promoting it and advertising it more, because people don’t know what to do. Some people come here and they are afraid they’ll have nothing to eat.”

Formoza said that students who need to have a gluten-free diet should come to her so she can make them aware of all the options and resources available. Bintz said she did not even know the Oswego campus had a dietitian available for this. Baker has met with Formoza, but she was not immediately aware there was a dietitian or gluten-free options at all.

“My mom got really fed up when I started going to the dining hall and I couldn’t eat anything,” Baker said. “So she called to see if there was someone I could talk to and that’s how I found out about Sarah [Formoza].”

But even though the gluten-free food is available in the dining halls, Formoza said she does not want the diet fad to extend here.

“It’s nice for the people who have to follow it, but I don’t want other people jumping on the bandwagon and doing it just because,” Formoza said. “The gluten-free food is meant for those who have the diet. And they are more expensive. We don’t want people abusing it. We want it for the people who need it.”

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