by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
It’s getting easier and easier to find gluten-free products these days, which is welcome news for the millions of people with celiac disease. Gluten, which is found in wheat and certain other grains, can cause serious health problems for people with celiac disease. But are gluten-free products also healthier for people without celiac disease? Are there risks involved in cutting out gluten? This week, I’ll give you my quick and dirty tips on the gluten-free diet.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and certain other cereal grains, including rye and barley. Most people tolerate this protein just fine. But for people with celiac disease, this protein triggers an immune reaction in the gut, which if left untreated can cause permanent damage to the lining of the small intestine. Untreated celiac disease also can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies because the damaged intestines are not able to absorb important nutrients.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is fairly common—affecting about one in every hundred people. But a lot of them don’t know they have it. That’s not too surprising because the symptoms can be a little vague. They might include gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. (Click here for more on the symptoms of celiac disease.) Celiac is diagnosed with a blood test or by biopsy.
Celiac is not the same as wheat allergy or gluten intolerance, although they can cause similar symptoms. And the solution for all three conditions is the same: a gluten-free diet will relieve symptoms and, in the case of celiac disease, prevent permanent damage to the bowel lining. (Click here for more on the difference between celiac disease and wheat allergies)
Which Foods Contain Gluten?
As I mentioned before, going gluten-free is getting much easier. Gluten-free foods—including pastas, crackers, cookies, cereal, and even breads—have become widely available and better-tasting. And the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in 2006 has made it easier to identify products that contain common allergens.
But it still requires some diligence. Gluten turns up in products you might not expect, like soy sauce, vinegar, beer, vitamin supplements, and some prescription drugs. Also, be aware that products labeled “wheat-free” are not necessarily gluten-free. With packaged foods, you’ll need to become a label sleuth. Fortunately, there are lots of organizations to offer information, guidance, and support.
What are the Risks of the Gluten-free Diet?
There are a couple of things to watch out for on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-free products tend to be lower in many nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts.
Gluten-free products tend to be lower in many nutrients--including folic acid and other B vitamins, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin D-- than their gluten-containing counterparts. It’s not that wheat is all that nutritious; it’s that wheat flour is almost always fortified with these nutrients. Gluten-free substitutes are often unfortified.
There are plenty of other sources for all of these nutrients of course. Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables, for example. Broccoli and dried fruit are good sources of iron. B12 is found in meat and dairy products. And, as I discussed in last week’s article, nutritional yeast can be a good vegetarian source of B12 and other B-vitamins. (Click here to search for foods high in specific nutrients.) A simple multi-vitamin can also ensure that you’ve got those nutritional bases covered.
Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help You Lose Weight?
And here’s a surprising little fact I came across: People following a gluten-free diet are more likely to be obese. That could be partly because gluten-free products tend to be low in fiber. Fiber is one of the things that helps you feel full. So if your diet is low in fiber you may inadvertently eat more calories and gain weight.
There may also be a bit of health-halo effect with gluten-free foods that causes people to eat more than they otherwise would. If you’re going gluten-free, you’ll want to watch out for that.
Finally, gluten-free packaged foods are quite a bit more expensive than regular foods. But, honestly, the availability of things like gluten-free cookies and pancake mix is more of a quality of life issue than a nutritional one. Neither cookies nor pancakes are required for a healthy diet. But for those who must avoid gluten, it’s nice to have the option once in a while.
What are the Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet?
The benefits of a gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease, wheat allergies, or gluten intolerance are fairly obvious. But gluten-free products are also developing some cache with people who don’t have these problems. I suspect that some people aren’t even sure what gluten is but when you see “gluten-free” on a package, it suggests that gluten is something to be avoided.
The truth is that many people—even most people—tolerate gluten just fine. But there are lots of stories about people who say that removing gluten from their diets cured them of their long-standing sinusitis, joint pain, irritable bowel, acne, or fatigue. Whether it was truly the gluten causing these symptoms is not for me to say. And, besides, it doesn’t really matter. If you feel better when you cut out gluten, be my guest. There’s absolutely no reason you must include wheat in your diet.
If you’d like to learn more about celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or find resources for gluten-free recipes, products, and living, check out the links I’ve posted below.
Going gluten-free doesn't mean you have to stop eating out. There are many restaurants that will cater to gluten-free diets. For links to searchable databases to find one near you, check out this Quick Tip.
Click here to get my recipe for quinoa salad with pecans and cranberries.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!
Symptoms of celiac disease
The difference between celiac disease and wheat allergy
Sources of hidden gluten
Resources for living with celiac and the gluten-free diet
Find foods high in various nutrients.
Benefits of Fiber
Junk Food in Disguise (Health Halo Effect)
Wheat image from Shutterstock