The word “gluten-free” is gaining in popularity. Long gone are the days where consumers had to order gluten-free foods online, and the aisles of the supermarket only stocked gluten-containing options. These days, gluten-free products are booming, and there is a heightened awareness of gluten-free foods. In 2011, reports indicated the retail gluten-free food market grew to an estimated $6.1 billion, and this number is only increasing. So, what’s the deal with this gluten-free craze? Learn more from FEED and determine if this diet is the right choice for you and your family.
• What does gluten-free mean?
Gluten is a general term for the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Recently, there has been a lot of hype about whether gluten is “toxic” to our bodies. As Dr. Stefano Guandalini, local pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, and world renowned researcher in celiac disease stated, “For the previous 250,000 years, man had evolved without having this very strange protein in his gut.” He said, This resulted in “a different protein which the human intestine cannot fully digest. Many people did not adapt to these great environmental changes, so some adverse effects related to gluten ingestion developed around that time.” Though many did not adapt to these changes, avoiding gluten is not for everyone, and actually can be putting your body at great risk for nutrient deficiencies, and even cause weight gain. Yep, you read it correctly, consuming a gluten-free diet, without proper direction, causes some people to gain weight.
• Who should be on a gluten-free diet?
Currently, the only reason to be on the gluten-free diet is following a diagnosis of celiac disease (an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of wheat in genetically susceptible individuals). However, researchers specializing in celiac disease have found that some may have a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). According to a report in the British Medical Journal, NCGS may affect 6-10% of the general population. People with NCGS test negative for wheat allergy, have negative celiac blood tests, and normal small intestinal biopsy. Symptoms can vary, but are similar to those with celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and wheat allergy, which may include (not limited to) bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain. It is crucial for consumers to understand that it can put you and/or your family at a nutritional risk by simply starting the gluten-free diet without medical supervision. Starting a gluten-free diet, prior to any medical evaluation, may mask clinical findings, considering the gluten-containing foods are no longer ingested.
• Is the gluten-free diet healthier?
Wheat, specifically whole wheat, is one of our main sources of fiber, B vitamins, iron, and even protein. For the general consumer, removing this from your diet can provide a deficiency of all these important nutrients, which can actually lead to growth failure in children. Some of these nutrients are not easily replaced by other grains. Many gluten-free foods are made with tapioca flour, potato starch, white rice, and refined corn, all of which are termed refined carbohydrates, and consuming these in excess naturally leads to weight gain. Important gluten-free grains include quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth, to name a few. However, these too can be stripped down to remove the essential parts of the whole grain, or worse, included in a product with a load of added fats to make the product more palatable. Further, many gluten-free products are not enriched with vitamins and minerals similar to gluten-containing products. Speaking to a registered dietitian, one who specializes in celiac disease, is an important step to ensure a gluten-free diet is well-balanced, nutritional deficiencies are avoided, and perhaps, most importantly, weight gain does not become an issue.
• What’s the harm in trying out the gluten-free diet?
There may not be any harm. However, with the nutrition risk, and the fact that it can be a very difficult diet to follow correctly, it is not recommended to the general population. Despite the hype from various celebrities touting their successes with the gluten-free diet, it is not something that everyone should just try out. Many consumers, when they make a specific diet change, inherently “feel better.” However, this may be due to the change in lifestyle which brings a heightened sense of awareness of one’s body. Removing a boatload of processed foods, that Americans typically over-consume such as bread, pasta, cookies, and crackers, will make the majority feel better. However, replacing these foods with equally as nutritionally poor choices, will not improve anyone’s nutrition long-term.
Check out more information about celiac disease and the latest on non-celiac gluten sensitivity at The University of Chicago Celiac Center. To make an appointment to discuss the gluten-free diet for you or your family, contact FEED at www.feednutrition.com.