To Go Gluten-Free or Not…That is the Question

HealthGal Health Guide
  • To start the gluten conversation, it’s important to understand what gluten free means.  A gluten free diet excludes the protein, gluten.  That means you don't eat foods that contain grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale.  A person is put on a gluten free diet when they are diagnosed with celiac disease.  In this condition, consumption of gluten causes inflammation in the small intestine and over time, damage to the inner surface of the small intestine. A person who has celiac disease will also not be able to absorb necessary nutrients from foods containing gluten, during digestion.  If you avoid all gluten-containing products, which traditionally includes breas, pasta, cookies, pizza and many other foods, you are more likely to avoid the symptoms that accompany celiac disease including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating.  Along with these complaints, someone who has celiac disease and eats gluten can experience weight loss, irritability, depression, anemia, stomach discomfort and pain, skin rashes and less commonly, mouth sores, dental and bone issues and tingling in legs and feet. Some of these side effects stem directly from the malabsorption of nutrients due to the disease. 

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    There's also a subset of the population who have an allergy to wheat or other similar grains.  They too can struggle with digestive problems, hives or swollen airways when consuming certain grains.  A doctor can diagnose celiac disease or a wheat allergy by taking a full history, performing a complete physical exam and ordering specific screening tests.  An allergy panel can identify allergies to specific grains.


    If you do need to avoid gluten, you can avail yourself of a burgeoning market of gluten free “grain-like” products including cereals, pastas, rices, bake mixes, cookies, breads and more.  Corn, buckwheat, flax, millet, quinoa, rice, soy, spelt, semolina are also all good replacements.  Then there's a range of foods including unprocessed beans, seeds and nuts, fresh eggs, unprocessed meat, fish and poultry, fruits and vegetables and most dairy products.  As soon as you decide to buy a processed food, you have to examine the label, like a detective, to make sure that no single ingredient falls under the “gluten category.”  Or you can choose to only buy processed foods marked "gluten free." 


    It’s important to emphasize that just buying and eating processed gluten free foods is to miss the point of how to manage a condition that negates eating gluten.  You should be focused on consuming healthy alternative grains and then foods from all the other food groups (fruits and vegetables, proteins, dairy, fats) that provide balnced and robust nutrition.  Be choosy with all the processed offerings - even if the label screams gluten free.  There are also people who suggests that even if you are not suffering from celiac disease or a wheat allergy, you will still benefit from completely avoiding gluten.  What is that all about?


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    To be clear, there are currently no double blind studies that showcase a health benefit for those avoiding gluten in the absence of celiac disease or wheat allergy.  In fact, some recent observations by experts suggest that there is a strong likelihood you will gain weight when you choose to eat gluten free, in the absence of celiac disease.  That appears to be because there's this strong behavioral shift to eat a lot of processed gluten free food.  These foods are not all low calorie, nor are they necessarily healthy.  They are just gluten free.  And when you eat a diet devoid of wheat, barley, rye and triticale, you also miss out on a variety of nutrients that you do need to then capture from other foods with similar nutrient profiles. Many of the gluten free offerings don’t necessarily offer those missing nutrients. 


    So the bottom line is that currently there appears to be no benefit and possibly a downside to going gluten free, when you don’t have to.


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Published On: November 08, 2012