Is Gluten-Free Diet Next 'It' Diet for Health
Sharon Palmer, M.D.
"I suggest avoiding gluten," is the advice given by
Such a belief in the benefits of gluten avoidance is not rare.
"It's definitely a hot trend for people to go off gluten. It's like the latest Atkins diet," says
Going completely gluten-free is a dire necessity for people diagnosed with celiac disease (CD), a lifelong, digestive disorder affecting both children and adults. When people with CD eat gluten-containing foods, it creates a toxic reaction from the immune system that causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be absorbed properly. Even small amounts of gluten can affect people with CD.
Damage can occur to the small bowel even when there are no gastrointestinal symptoms present. CD affects one out of 100 people, making it "the most under-diagnosed disease in America," Case says. A
Other gluten-free followers are those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (an intolerance to gluten that manifests with symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea) and people with a wheat allergy that must avoid gluten-containing wheat products.
Case notes that there's little scientific support to back the claims that humans in general should eliminate gluten, but she concedes that we're eating gluten at unprecedented levels.
"We are eating a lot of gluten in processed foods and things like bagels, muffins and snack foods. We're carbaholics. We don't eat the same way our grandparents did--they ate smaller amounts of gluten, and primarily in the form of bread," says Case. Cutting back on high amounts of gluten in wheat products--especially in refined, processed foods--is pretty sound advice for an optimal diet, in general.
While the benefits from cutting back on a gluten overload seem obvious, the notion that gluten-free equals healthy is a mistake.
"People think gluten-free is healthier, and it's not so," says Case. "Many people gain weight because gluten-free products mostly contain starches, sugars and fats, and the majority of gluten-free foods are not enriched with vitamins and minerals as wheat products are. People tend to feel deprived when they're on a gluten-free diet, so they often eat more gluten-free baked products, like cookies."
On the other hand, a gluten-free diet can be a model of health with just a little effort. By forging a diet around lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and ancient gluten-free whole grains like quinoa, it can be done.
Consider going gluten-free? If you are thinking about trying a gluten-free diet to relieve any symptoms, first review the symptoms of CD and see if they apply to you, Case suggests. If they do, talk to your doctor about a blood test or small intestine biopsy for an accurate diagnosis.
If results indicate you don't have CD, you might consider a gluten-free diet trial anyway to see if you get any relief. If you do have CD, meet with a registered dietitian to help you plan a healthy gluten-free diet.
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(c) 2010 Environmental Nutrition Newsletter