Should you follow a gluten-free diet? Will it help you to lose weight, feel better and give you more energy? Celebrities are endorsing it. Gluten-free products now line store shelves. Restaurants are serving gluten-free options. Is this a fad or does the gluten-free craze make good sense? Here’s what you really need to know:
* When people who have celiac disease eat gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – it triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. This damage reduces the ability to absorb nutrients from food and can be harmful to health. Symptoms include anemia, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, cramps and bloating. Diagnosis is done with blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine. The only treatment available at this time is to follow a gluten-free diet.
* Health Canada estimates about 1 out of every 100 to 200 people worldwide suffer from Celiac disease. It can occur at any age. If someone in your immediate family has it, you have a 10% to 20% higher risk of developing it. Children who are breast-fed may be less likely to develop it, especially if foods that contain gluten are introduced gradually in small amounts at age five to six months and breast-feeding is continued for at least one month after gluten is introduced.
* The number of people who suffer from celiac disease has been increasing worldwide. The cause of the increase is still not understood. Some researchers, such as Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment, believe that environmental factors such as an infection, taking antibiotics or a change in diet can alter gut bacteria and make people more susceptible to the disease. What can you do to promote a healthy gut environment? Eat a diet that contains lots of whole, unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and 100% whole grains. Probiotics, such as those added to yogurt, may also be beneficial.
* Some people do not have celiac disease, but display a sensitivity to gluten. This involves a different type of immune reaction in which there is inflammation, but no damage to the intestine. Symptoms can be similar. Total elimination of gluten from the diet may not be necessary; however, eating less gluten containing foods and eating them in smaller quantities may be helpful. There is no official diagnosis for gluten sensitivity. Taking gluten out of the diet and then gradually introducing it, while keeping a food diary may be the best way to monitor symptoms.
* Should you follow a gluten-free diet if you don’t have to? Will it give you more energy or help you to lose weight? I would never recommend a gluten-free diet to someone who does not suffer from celiac disease or demonstrate a definite sensitivity to gluten. Research shows that those who omit gluten containing foods from their diet are more likely to miss out on important nutrients such as iron, B vitamins and fibre. They’re also more likely to have a decrease in the good or healthy kind of bacteria that live along the gastrointestinal tract that are so important to good health. Eating a wide variety of whole grains, including those that contain gluten, is linked to a lower risk of many kinds of disease and I believe, is a much more enjoyable way to eat as well.
* If you must follow a gluten-free diet understand that many gluten-free products are made with refined grains like corn or potato starch that are low in fibre and lacking in the nutrients and beneficial plant compounds found in whole grains. They’re often unfortified as well, which means they are not good sources of B vitamins or iron. It is important to make gluten-free choices that are still 100% whole grain, such as quinoa, buckwheat, teff, sorghum, amaranth, millet, brown rice and wild rice. Bean-based flours also offer good nutrition (soy, chickpea, lentil, etc.). Oats are generally allowed as long as they are pure and uncontaminated. Many of the oats in North America are processed near or with grains that contain gluten.
People with celiac disease cannot eat grains that contain gluten, including wheat, barley and rye, because it damages their small intestine and their health. Those who suffer from a sensitivity to gluten may have to limit their intake as well. For others, there is no need to limit or omit gluten-containing grains and ultimately, doing so may be more harmful to health than beneficial.