You hear a lot in the popular media about the benefits of going gluten-free, but going gluten-free will only benefit you if you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy or sensitivity. Otherwise, most of the gluten-free packaged foods you’ll find are highly refined (often made from white rice and tapioca flour), low in fiber, sometimes high in sugar, and not particularly great for you.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s estimated that around 1% of Americans have celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten leads the body to attack its own tissues, destroying the villi that line the intestine and make possible nutrient absorption. The disease can manifest in various ways, and may not even present with intestinal symptoms (details at celiac.org). It leads to malnutrition and a host of other ailments, and if you have reason to suspect you’re celiac, you need to see a GI right away. The doctor may order bloodwork as well as an endoscopy to check your intestines, and if there is a suspicion of celiac disease, you will be taken off gluten for 2-4 weeks to see if your symptoms improve. If you are scheduled to see a GI, do not go off gluten prior to your appointment! They need to test and examine you in your current condition, eating a regular diet.
Apart from true celiacs, there are also many gluten intolerant or sensitive people who may not have the disease, but who nonetheless feel better keeping gluten out of their diets for the most part, as well as those with a wheat allergy, who need to avoid wheat, though not necessarily rye and barley. I fall into the former class. While going through the hell of unexplained infertility in my mid-30’s, I eliminated gluten to see if it would make any difference. It didn’t seem to affect my fertility, but I did notice a major improvement in my energy levels. Formerly, I had been crashing around 2-3p daily, feeling like I was underwater and needed to sleep. With gluten out of my diet, this condition disappeared, and I can honestly say that I have more energy throughout the day now in my mid-40’s than I did at 34. I’m not celiac, and I will have the occasional slice of pizza or beer, but for the most part I am gluten-free, and my body feels really good.
Scientists suspect that changes in wheat over the past several decades have played a role in all of this. Wheat has been bred to increase yield, disease-resistance, nutrition, and many other positive things, but it has been altered to the point where it no longer resembles the wheat that humans have consumed since we began farming. There are benefits from the changes, but they may have had the unexpected consequence of making gluten harder or impossible for some to digest.
You can google gluten and celiac disease and get loads of additional information, but remember that if you do test out a gluten-free diet, do not assume that just because a packaged food says “no gluten” that it is a health food or even nutritious! Some products are very worthwhile, such as brown rice pastas and tortillas and some cereals (varies by individual kinds, though, always check labels for the first couple of ingredients, which are the ones that comprise the majority of the food). But from what I’ve seen, most of the “GF” cookies, cakes, bars, cereals, etc. tend to be loaded with sugar and low-fiber grains, and they don’t belong in your diet on a regular basis.
I will post some of my favored GF recipes in the future, and some further ideas for easy GF cooking using such grains as quinoa, millet, brown rice, GF oats, and others. It’s easy once you master the basic idea, and if gluten is making you sick or tired, you’ll feel renewed once it’s out of your diet. You’ll also probably drop a few pounds, as it’ll be an easy way to say “no” to the high-calorie starchy-carb onslaught at most restaurants. Just don’t be mislead into thinking that it’s a diet panacea or (unless you actually have a gluten problem) that it will be the miracle that restores you to perfect health.