Is Going Gluten Free Healthy?

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

According to leading market researchers one third of adults have reduced or eliminated gluten in their diets. With Celiac patients only accounting for one percent of the population, a lot of research has gone into these new gluten-free foods, whether they are healthy, and if people without Celiac should be eating them. Lets clear up the gluten confusion...

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye.  The protein is also an additive in many foods including bread, pasta, food coloring, malt, beer, salad dressings and many other processed foods.

Who should be gluten free?

Celiac Disease

In the past, the only patients who were advised to go gluten free were those who had Celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system causes damage in the cells of the intestine after the ingestion of gluten.  This damage can be quite serious and cause mal-absorption issues and severe pain.  If you think you might have Celiac disease, please discuss the appropriate testing with your physician.

Wheat Allergy

Wheat allergy is a true allergic reaction that can cause anaphylaxis at its most severe state.  Most often found in children, wheat allergy is frequently outgrown by the age of 3 for many children, and by age 12 for the majority.  While these patients can eat some gluten from non-wheat sources because the gluten free products on the market are wheat free, they provide more options to those with this allergy.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten Intolerance is a new term coined to define the people who don't fall into the above categories but still have issues when they consume gluten. While some of the buzz about gluten intolerance is pure hype, built up to sell a product, there are also people who really do suffer when they consume gluten.  If you believe you fall into this category you can work with a dietitian, do an elimination diet, or keep a food journal to see if you actually are intolerant to gluten.

Are gluten free foods healthy?

There has been a lot of debate in the media about whether a gluten free diet is healthy or whether it can actually do you harm.  The short answer is: BOTH.  What really matters is what kind of gluten free foods you are eating. As with any healthy eating plan, the more processed foods you eat, the more unhealthy your diet will be.  With the addition of tons of processed, quick gluten free foods to the market what could have been a healthy eating plan turned into the equivalent of fast food meals.  If you eat these types of processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat while being low in fiber your health will pay.

On the flip side, if you stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store and pick whole foods that are naturally gluten free you can maintain optimum nutrition levels.

Should I talk to my doctor?

If you have not been diagnosed with Celiac disease,  a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance and believe you suffer from one of those conditions, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis.  There are additional things your physician will want to monitor if you have one of these conditions.  For example, those with celiac may need to be monitored for any nutrient deficiencies due to mal-absorption.  Many with wheat allergy may have additional allergies that are important to determine and may require the patient to carry an Epi-pen.

With all of the confusion out there it's important to resist the urge to self diagnose through books or online groups.  Getting an accurate diagnosis and following it with the proper nutrition and treatment can get you feeling well quickly and prevents missing other conditions with similar symptoms.

Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition.She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years.Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).

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