By Alexandra Zissu
The gluten-free diet has spawned celebrity followers, Twitter hashtags, and how-to books. Why the fuss? It's not because people are losing weight or buffing up. It's because they're feeling better--much better.
Devotees say eliminating gluten, the protein component of some cereal grains, gives them more energy, fewer aches and pains, and less bloating and depression. "I cut out wheat and my fatigue and digestive problems disappeared in three days," says Elisabeth Prueitt, pastry chef and co-owner of San Francisco's Tartine Bakery. She had to give up Tartine's famous bread, but she says it's a small price to pay for feeling healthy.
Avoiding gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and foods that contain them, is a medical must for people with celiac disease and wheat allergies, estimated to be a little more than 1 percent of the population. But most people who go gluten-free do so without having been diagnosed with a disorder, saying they can't "tolerate" gluten. After years of skepticism, many doctors now think they're right.
"Physicians are swearing that their own fatigue and brain fog lifted" after they gave up gluten, says Peter H. R. Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. "We don't know the mechanisms for this. It's fascinating."
Reaping these benefits means giving up most pizzas, pastas, and breads, but it doesn't mean a life of austerity and packaged gluten-free foods. Corn, potatoes, and rice are naturally gluten-free, so cuisines like Mexican, Thai, and Indian have lots to offer. Restaurants now offer "GF" options, and it's easier than ever to find decent baked goods.
If you think you're sensitive to gluten, get tested for celiac disease or wheat allergies. Even if you test negative, it could be worth experimenting with the diet (read labels and quiz waiters for nonobvious gluten sources). But remember: Mashed potatoes and sugary processed snacks can add pounds even if they're "safe," so a balanced diet of naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy is better.
Get started by making these restaurant dishes, which are so good you won't miss the bread basket.