Yesterday, while driving between Alegent hospitals, I listened to “talk radio” (not sure why) but I heard the national host say that he was following a gluten free diet. He was recommending it to everyone. In the grocery store, I see gluten free products appearing everywhere. Restaurant menus and ads list gluten free options. I am wondering if gluten free has become a “fad diet”.
As a student studying nutrition therapy for managing chronic diseases, I thought a gluten free diet was a hardship. As a practicing dietitian, my patients with a diagnosis of celiac sprue expressed frustration with finding foods to enjoy and especially for dining out. For these individuals, the new products have been a blessing by providing them with more options and easier access to gluten free products.
How did gluten free become so mainstream? Let me take you on a short journey with gluten free and celiac sprue.
Gluten is simply the protein found in certain grains, barley, rye, and wheat. Oats do not contain gluten, but because of contamination with the other grains, oats usually is on the gluten list. Pasta, bread, and cereals are sources of gluten. Even household products such as lotion or lipstick can be sources of gluten. Reading the ingredient list is survival for the person with celiac sprue.
Gluten intolerance, triggered by eating gluten, is known as celiac sprue or celiac disease. Think of your small intestine as many small fingers grabbing nutrients to absorb. These small fingers are called villi and microvilli. In celiac sprue, these small fingers lay down. They become flat and do not do their job. This results in painful bowel inflammation, diarrhea, and malabsorption. By avoiding gluten, the intestine returns to its normal state. The person with celiac sprue usually will remain symptom free as long as gluten is avoided.
If you have GI symptoms, do not place yourself on a gluten free diet. Talk to your doctor before going gluten free. If you eliminate gluten before testing, it can actually interfere with the diagnostic test.
Now returning to my original question, why is gluten free so popular? I think it is Hollywood. Celebrities endorsing gluten free living began a new trend. Then it hits the blogosphere and it becomes mainstream.
For a person without celiac disease, eating gluten free does not mean eating healthier. There are plenty of processed gluten free foods that are high in calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. Many of these gluten free foods (like gluten free crackers, cakes, cookies) are not high in fiber. Fiber provides a sense of fullness so I have noticed that people choosing gluten free will increase their portions to obtain a sense of fullness. This leads to extra calories and weight gain. Portions still matter even with gluten free.
Even if you want to follow the trend, many naturally gluten free foods are available, including fruits, vegetables, rice, quinoa, beans, dairy products, and additive free meats, chicken, pork, or seafood.
These blogs are written by members of the CHI Health Nutrition Services team.