The Gluten-Free Diet: All You Need to Know
My heart goes out to those with celiac disease back when the gluten-free diet was not popular 10-20 years ago. That must have been really tough to stick to the diet. Thankfully, today manufacturers are running to keep up with the demand for gluten-free products. Now there is a vast amount of gluten-free foods available for our celiac-friends. However, they are not the only ones consuming gluten-free products. In fact, the gluten-free diet has gained a whole lot of attention lately. If you’re interested to know if it’s worth all the hype or not, keep reading!
What is Gluten?
First, let’s review gluten and what we know about it. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It helps provide structure to products like breads, baked goods, and pasta. Sometimes oats, which are by nature gluten-free, can irritate someone with celiac disease if they consume those which were grown alongside grains containing gluten. Only oats labeled ‘gluten-free’ are risk-free for those with celiac disease.
What Happens to Those with Celiac Disease When They Eat Gluten?
When people with celiac disease consume gluten, their body’s immune system attacks the nutrient once it enters the small intestine. Damage to the villi in the small intestine can occur, which then inhibits the absorption of nutrients. Symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea are typically seen thereafter. There are many other symptoms and conditions that can develop with undiagnosed and/or untreated celiac disease, causing this disease to be a threat to one’s well-being and longevity.
How Common is Celiac Disease?
Only about 1% of the United States population actually have celiac disease and absolutely need to follow a gluten-free diet. So why is it that so many people are cutting out gluten? Part of the reason is because this has turned into a fad diet used for weight loss (which has not been proven by science as useful). Another reason is because many people are starting to proclaim themselves as gluten-sensitive, a condition that is not a true allergy but there are still negative symptoms after eating gluten.
Is it Possible to be Gluten-Sensitive?
Yes. The condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is understood as a condition effecting many. The trouble with NCGS is it cannot be diagnosed with any lab values – it is based on symptoms alone and the lack of celiac-positive lab values. Symptoms include pain in the abdomen after ingesting gluten, headaches, joint pains, lack of attention, diarrhea, loss of body mass, depression, ataxia, numb hands and feet, chronic fatigue, hyperactivity, flatulence, bloating, and nausea.
Should You Be Eating Gluten-Free if You Don’t Have Celiac Disease?
Gluten is often eliminated for those following an ‘anti-inflammatory diet’. This is based on the assumption that we cannot always tell if we are sensitive because some symptoms are very minor, but there may still be inflammation occurring underneath the surface. If you believe you are gluten sensitive, try eliminating gluten for 1 month and then reintroducing it into your diet to observe any symptoms that may have gone and then returned along with the return of gluten. The change may be minor or it may be drastic – everyone is different!
The Sneaky Side to Gluten Free Products
Bear in mind that a lot of gluten-free products have extra fat and sugar added to help with the loss in texture and flavor. In many cases, the gluten-free product is actually less healthy than the product with gluten. So if you are wanting to follow a gluten-free diet to be ‘healthier’, do not go into it assuming all products labeled gluten-free are healthier. For example: an apple does not have gluten and a piece of cake does. Therefore, a gluten-free diet would be healthier if that means having an apple instead of cake. However, if apples are not in the question and the consumer simply switches to gluten-free cake, this is not a healthier option. There is still plenty of fat and sugar being consumed.
The gluten-free diet is absolutely essential for those who suffer from celiac disease. As I said before, there are a lot more options available to those with celiac disease due to the high demand a fad diet brings. For those who are sensitive to gluten, it can also be beneficial to eliminate gluten to be rid of uncomfortable, painful, or embarrassing symptoms. However, the research supporting a gluten-free diet as being more healthy and/or effective for weight loss is limited, if not nonexistent. If weight loss or a healthier diet is what you are hoping for, consider adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fiber to your diet along with regular physical activity. Gluten can be a friend to those who are celiac-free and sensitivity-free, so don’t be afraid of it!
Tanveer, M., & Ahmed, A. (2019). Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: A Systematic Review. Journal Of The College Of Physicians And Surgeons–Pakistan: JCPSP, 29(1), 51–57. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.29271/jcpsp.2019.01.51
Michelle Yates, RD, LMNT, is a clinical dietitian at CHI Health Lakeside Hospital, specializing in the Medical/Surgical unit & the Oncology unit. She doubles as a dance instructor as well as a master’s student for Health Psychology. Her passions are to help others break free from any negative ideas of food they carry, along with opening their eyes to the joys of “everything in moderation”.