Going Gluten-Free: A Do or Don’t?

  • It’s the latest diet craze of the decade. It seems like everyone is going “gluten-free.” But is it the right diet for you, and is avoiding gluten going to improve the quality of your diet and overall health?


    Gluten and celiac disease

    Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye products. Gluten-free diets have been around for many years. This diet is the primary treatment for celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten can cause damage to the small intestine. Over time, damage to the villi inside the small intestine inhibits your body’s ability to absorb nutrients properly.  This can lead to long-term health problems, including anemia, lactose intolerance, osteoporosis, and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

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    The rate of celiac disease has been rising.  In fact, the prevalence of celiac disease has increased four times in the U.S. over the past 50 years. It can also be inherited. If you have a parent, child, or sibling with celiac disease, you have a 1 in 10 chance of developing the disease. The only way to find out if you have celiac disease is through a blood test and biopsy.


    Other gluten conditions

    Why would someone choose to follow a gluten-free diet if they don’t have celiac disease? Many people who follow a gluten-free diet find that it alleviates negative gastrointestinal side effects, including gas, cramping, and bloating. Going gluten-free will not make you lose weight—healthy food choices and reducing your overall caloric intake will help you with weight loss. In fact, people living with celiac disease usually gain weight on a gluten-free diet, since their intestinal tract can begin to heal as a result of their gluten-free diet and they can absorb nutrients again.


    What if you don’t have confirmed celiac disease or a wheat allergy but think you have some adverse symptoms or reaction when you consume gluten-containing products?  There is something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, although this is widely debated in the GI community. Right now, this condition cannot be diagnosed and there is no scientific documentation of whether gluten or another protein causes the symptoms. But if you have improvement in your symptoms by avoiding gluten, you may want to keep avoiding it.


    Which foods have gluten?

    If you want to eliminate gluten from your diet, you need to avoid all foods that contain barley (including malt, malt flavoring, and malt vinegar since they are usually made from barley).  You also need to avoid wheat, rye, and triticale (which is a cross between wheat and rye).  Wheat can also come under several other names, so it is important to become a savvy label reader. Other wheat products include farina, kamut, bulgur, spelt, semolina, durum flour, and graham flour. 


    Unless a food is labeled “gluten-free” or specifically states that it contains only rice, soy, corn, or another gluten-free grain, it should be avoided.  Even grains such as oats can be contaminated with wheat during growing, harvesting, and processing, so they should be avoided unless specifically labeled “gluten-free.” 


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    Eating out can be a challenge when you are trying to follow a gluten-free diet. Unless the food is labeled “gluten-free,” the following foods should be avoided: pasta, cookies, crackers, French fries, pies, cakes, beer, bread, cereals, croutons, gravies, sauces, processed lunchmeat, salad dressings, soy sauce, snack foods, and soups. There are also some other surprising items with gluten, such as medicine.


    Fortunately, many restaurants now offer “gluten-free” menus for consumers, which include gluten-free pizza, sandwiches, snacks, and desserts. However, cross-contamination can happen in restaurant kitchens. Most grocery stores now offer a gluten-free aisle for packaged products including pastas, cereals, dressings, sauces, and packaged snacks.



    If you have celiac or gluten sensitivity and accidentally consume gluten, you may experience abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea. Some people will have no symptoms at all. But for someone who has a gluten allergy, even a small amount of gluten can damage their small intestines, even if they have no gastrointestinal symptoms after consumption. People with are living with celiac disease can experience fewer symptoms and complications of their disease if they avoid gluten for life.



    Going gluten-free may cause you to have a deficiency of some nutrients and vitamins, since many grains are enriched with these essential nutrients.  Your physician and/or dietitian should discuss your diet with you to ensure that you are getting enough iron, calcium, fiber, folate, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin.

Published On: July 08, 2014