Should You Go Gluten-Free?

Do you remember when we thought eggs were for bad for us?  How about when fat-free products lined supermarket shelves?  And, of course, we cannot forget the most recent “low-carb” phase!  Well, just walk into any grocery store, and it’s not hard to tell that the new bad guy in town is gluten.  Now don’t get me wrong, for people with celiac disease, cutting out gluten leads to a healthier, happier life.  But what about the rest of us?  Will going gluten-free finally help shrink our waistlines, or is this just another diet fad?  I think this wonderful article by Danielle Rosenfeld, RD sums it up perfectly.

Gluten needs a PR agent.  Judging by supermarket shelves and bakeshop windows, half the country’s sworn off this protein fragment, found in wheat and related grains such as barley and rye.  It’s getting blamed for everything from intestinal pain to infertility.  But can this ingredient, which provides the delicious, chewy, crumby texture and signature flavor in most every baked good, really be that bad for everyone?  In a word, no.

 Who Should Give Up Gluten?  Gluten-free diets were designed as a treatment for individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects one in 133 people in the US.  For people who have celiac disease, consuming gluten can damage the small intestine and lead to a range of symptoms including bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting, as well as adverse health consequences such as infertility, osteoporosis, and neurological disorders.  Celiac commonly goes undiagnosed, slowly damaging the intestines and impairing their ability to absorb essential nutrients the body needs.  The only known treatment for celiac disease is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet.  But this isn’t an easy task, given that gluten is added to such random foods as deli meats and nutritional supplements.

 “Patients may also have an allergy to gluten, which is different than Celiac Disease,” says David H. Berman, MD, FACP, FACG at the Mount Sinai division of Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology and Park Avenue Medical Professions. “Approximately 1 in 30 adults with abdominal symptoms are actually allergic to gluten.”  Gluten allergies can produce symptoms similar to Celiac but will not cause the more serious side effects associated with the disease.  According to Berman, patients with gluten allergies can tolerate small quantities of gluten, but only if they are currently symptom-free.  That being said, gluten-free diets can be useful for a large portion of the population — as long as it’s done right.

 Is Gluten Bad For the Rest of Us?  It seems you can’t walk down a supermarket aisle or scan a restaurant menu these days without seeing the words “Gluten Free!”  The gluten-free market is a $6.3 billion industry, up 33 percent since 2009, as reported in The New York Times Magazine (November 2011).  The proliferation of gluten-free foods is good news for those with an allergy or Celiac disease, but for the rest of us, it’s simply confusing.  As a result of the increased awareness of gluten in the marketplace, many people have put themselves on gluten-free diets, thinking it will improve their health or enhance their weight loss.  However, there is no clinical evidence to support that a healthy individual will benefit from going gluten-free.  In fact, the majority of current research on gluten-free diets examines its effectiveness in improving clinical conditions rather than overall health and weight loss.

 Cutting gluten-containing grains from your diet can deprive your body of essential micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, fiber, and critical B-vitamins.  Eliminating these grains means you need to get these nutrients from other sources.  A gluten free diet can be nutritious— if you replace gluten-containing products with fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and nutrient-rich gluten-free grains such as quinoa.

 Dropping gluten from your diet in order to shed pounds can seriously backfire.  Many gluten-free grains, such as buckwheat, are higher in calories.  “Gluten-free versions of packaged foods also tend to be higher in calories and fat and lower in fiber compared to their regular counterparts,” says Michelle Nabatian, Registered Dietitian at Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life in New York City.  “They can also be more expensive.”  The bottom line:  Make an appointment with your doctor if you think you remove gluten from your diet; he or she can let you know if it’s a medically sound idea.