Gluten-Free: For Me?

Have you noticed the newest craze in the world of nutrition and dieting: gluten-free?  It would be difficult not to at least wonder why so many food products are making gluten-free claims on their labels.  Surely you have seen at least one celebrity claim about weight loss that was accomplished by following a gluten free eating plan.  What is all the fuss about, and is it the answer to frustrated dieters’ prayers?  Is it the answer to YOUR prayers?

Before you decide to eliminate gluten from your diet, it would be a good idea to learn more about what it is, why it can be a problem for some people, and whether or not you would benefit from living without it.

Gluten is a complex found in certain grains, particularly wheat, barley, and rye, that contains the proteins glutenin and gliadin.  Oats that are processed alongside these grains can contain gluten as a result of contamination.  If you take a close look at the foods you regularly eat, it is likely that eliminating all foods containing gluten would dramatically change your eating habits.  Some common foods that could no longer be included are pizza, most breads, many cereals, and most baked goods.  Obviously, adopting a gluten-free lifestyle would not be easy for most people.

Some people need to eliminate all gluten for health reasons.  It is estimated that between 0.5 and 1.0 percent of Americans have a condition called Celiac Disease that causes an autoimmune reaction whenever they eat gluten-containing foods.  The body attacks its own tissues, in particular those of the small intestine, causing damage to intestinal “villi”, little finger-like projections that help the body absorb nutrients.  If undiagnosed, Celiac Disease can cause long-term health problems due to nutritional deficiency and related autoimmune issues, in addition to gastrointestinal discomfort.  By eliminating all gluten-containing foods, symptoms resolve and health improves.

Not to be confused with Celiac Disease, many people suffer from similar gastrointestinal symptoms for other reasons.  Wheat allergies are among the most common food reactions, but the cause is a different kind of immune response.  There may be other symptoms as well.  “Intolerance” or  “sensitivity” to gluten without an autoimmune response is another possible cause of gastrointestinal discomfort.  In the case of a gluten allergy or sensitivity, elimination of gluten from the diet is recommended, however there is no long-term damage caused by exposure to these foods.  Symptoms resolve when the irritating foods clear out of the body.

So, is gluten-free a healthy way for everyone to eat?  Can you get rid of the extra weight you have been trying to drop?  If you have persistent gastrointestinal symptoms, especially when you eat gluten-containing foods, you should be tested for Celiac Disease before you eliminate the suspected foods.  It is important to find out if that is indeed the cause, because there may be nutritional deficiencies to treat and other health issues to monitor.  By just eliminating gluten based on the suspicion of Celiac Disease, there could be important considerations that are ignored.

In the case of a wheat allergy or intolerance, the irritating foods can be eliminated or reduced as needed.  Keeping a food diary for a few weeks can help identify causes of the symptoms.

There is no good reason to believe that a gluten-free diet will aid weight loss in a magical way, however it can cause a reduction in calories if a person tends to overeat foods with gluten in them.  By cutting out all gluten-containing foods, a lot of tasty options are eliminated.  The question remains:  Is it possible to continue eating that way if it is not medically necessary?  That has always been the biggest issue for dieters – keeping the weight off.

There are many healthy foods that contain gluten, including whole grain breads and cereals.  When gluten does not create a health problem, these foods have been shown in studies to promote healthy digestion and help prevent against disease.  They also add flexibility and variety to food choices.  Why would anyone want to eliminate them completely if they do not pose a health risk?

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One response to “Gluten-Free: For Me?

  1. Hello fellow dietitian! I wrote an article similar to this subject on my website http://www.dietarymythbuster.com/archives/394#more-394

    I hope your blogging goes well and have a happy new year! I will continue to follow your post!

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