The abundance of gluten-free options in grocery stores, restaurants and recipes makes many people feel that this must be way healthier than their standard diet. As the promotion of gluten-free products grows so does the belief that gluten is the cause of or exacerbates a number of health issues and that eliminating this from our diet is beneficial to all.
People diagnosed with celiac disease must remove gluten from their diets. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive system. People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten may also be in other products like medicines, vitamins and even the glue on stamps or envelopes. When people with celiac disease eat foods with gluten in them, the immune system responds by damaging the lining of the small intestine. When this happens, the body can’t absorb all the nutrients it needs. This can lead to malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis and other health issues. Celiac disease is diagnosed by your gastroenterologist, initially with blood testing and generally followed by an endoscopic biopsy of the intestine. It is important to have a true diagnosis rather than self-diagnosing from symptoms. Many symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of IBS or other GI issues and your physician is the only one who can confirm the cause of your discomfort.
For those without celiac disease, gluten is not a dietary concern. It is wise to consider the following before joining the “gluten-free” fad:
- Gluten-free is often not more nutritious. Gluten binds food together and food manufacturers substitute more fat and sugar to make up for the lack of gluten in food products. A serving of regular pretzels has about 110 calories and one gram of fat. The gluten-free version has 140 calories and 6 grams of fat. Gluten makes foods thick and tasty, helps pastry items rise and is in many whole grains that are rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. There are some concerns with the gluten-free diet and additional exposure to arsenic from rice and rice flour.
- Gluten-free is more expensive. If you suffer from celiac disease, the abundance of new gluten-free products is wonderful. Celiac disease patients have seen a surge in products both in the grocery store and in restaurants that are advertised as gluten-free and for them the expense is well worth it since they have had such limited selections in the past. For those who do not have celiac disease, the extra expense (often double) is unnecessary and does not result in the health benefits they might hope.
- Eating a healthy diet is important for everyone. Although gluten-free is not necessary for everyone, eating a diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish, reduced-fat dairy and non-processed foods is healthy for everyone. Gluten-free diets have the tendency to result in low levels of vitamins and nutrients that you do get from eating a well-balanced healthy diet.
It is extremely important to go to a gastroenterologist for diagnosis of any issues you may think are caused by gluten or other foods in your diet. Many digestive issues are similar, but have different causes and your physician can help you figure out what may be causing you to have chronic diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain and bloating, unexplained weight loss, anemia, fatigue or flatulence and it may have nothing to do with gluten.