Is a Gluten-free Diet Necessary?

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There is a proliferation of gluten-free products on the market. Up to 3% of Americans claim to avoid gluten. Many consumers view a gluten-free diet as healthier, and they claim it helps them feel better. Others believe avoiding gluten can help them lose weight. Right now, to be gluten-free is in vogue.

While bread is considered to be the “staff of life,” all breads containing wheat, rye, or barley contain gluten. And wheat can lurk in a lot of unlikely places, such as soups, gravies and soy sauce. Gluten also shows up in many whole grain foods related to wheat, including bulgur, kamut, spelt, and triticale.

For people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential to avoid adverse health effects. Yet, most of the people who reach for gluten-free products don’t have gluten intolerance. For them, a gluten-free diet may not be the best since gluten-free products tend to be low in a wide range of important nutrients, including B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. Gluten is not harmful to healthy people The use of whole grain foods (that contain gluten) is also associated with the lowered risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

Experts estimate that about 3 million Americans, from all ethnic groups, have celiac disease. With this condition, there is an abnormal immune response to gluten and the villi are attacked. The lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged, and normal absorption of food is blocked.

Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bloating, anemia, severe skin rash, muscular disturbances, headaches, and fatigue. Young children can experience failure to thrive. But celiac disease often has few or no symptoms, and only about 5 to 10% of cases have been diagnosed. Sometimes, a stressor such as surgery, an infection, or a strong emotional event, can exacerbate gluten intolerance so that the symptoms become noticeable.

How can you know if you have celiac disease? Firstly, a blood test detects antibodies related to an abnormal immune response. Secondly, if the blood test is positive, a biopsy is performed to confirm an inflammation in the lining of the small intestines.

Completely eliminating gluten means you have to give up most breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, conventional pastas, pastry goods, and a wide range of processed foods. For a product to be labeled as gluten-free, it must not contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Gluten-free whole-grain choices include brown rice, buckwheat, corn, as well as amaranth, millet, and quinoa.

Low-gluten diets may improve gastrointestinal symptoms. This may be due to a reduction in poorly absorbed simple sugars (such as fructans and galactans and sugar alcohols) often associated with foods containing gluten. Gut symptoms can disappear once these sugars are reduced.

Gluten does not cause a person to gain weight. And there is simply no evidence that a gluten-free diet produces weight loss. On the other hand, whole wheat products that are high in fiber are useful for hunger control and weight management. People who go gluten-free may lose weight because they switch to eating more fruit and vegetables and eating less calories. Most gluten-free alternatives are significantly more expensive and this is an incentive to eat less.

For most people, eating whole grains (including wheat) is not detrimental to their health but is actually associated with better nutrition and a reduced lower risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

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