The Gluten-Free Diet - medical treatment for some, fad diet for others. What exactly is gluten, and how does it affect our bodies?
Gluten is mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Several grain products, such as pastas, breads, and baked goods, contain gluten and gluten derivatives. Gluten may also be “hiding” in sauces, soups, and processed foods. Currently, there is no requirement for manufacturers to label their products as “gluten-free,” but naturally gluten-free products (i.e. bottled water) may be labeled as such; therefore, it is especially important for those on a strict gluten-free diet to familiarize themselves with nutrition and ingredient labels.
For some, a gluten-free diet is medically indicated. Individuals with celiac disease must avoid gluten in their diet as it causes damage to their digestive system. This can result in painful bloating, cramps, diarrhea, or other digestive issues, as well as nutrient malabsorption. Some people may also have gluten sensitivity, which causes similar symptoms, but isn’t quite as severe as celiac disease.
So, is a gluten free diet beneficial to the general population? The gluten-free diet is often marketed as a weight loss strategy, but there isn’t much research showing the health benefits of this diet. In fact, following this diet may actually have negative effects on one’s health. Being that gluten is primarily found in grains and carbohydrates, people may be tempted to eliminate this food group all together. However, carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of your intake.
In particular, whole wheat and complex carbs provide fiber, and are often fortified with essential nutrients. The nutritional profile of gluten-free alternatives varies from gluten free products; they are typically lower in protein, and key vitamins and minerals, as they aren’t typically fortified. If the motivation for following a gluten-free diet is weight loss, there are easier, healthier, and more sustainable ways to do it than eliminating gluten. Going gluten-free may also cause unnecessary harm to your wallet as well, as many of these products tend to be more expensive than their gluten containing counterparts.
The Bottom Line: unless medically indicated, very few scientific organizations support the use of a gluten-free diet. However, if a consumer chooses to follow this diet, it is important that they eat a variety of nutrient dense foods to ensure adequate consumption of vital nutrients that may otherwise be lacking. Medical professionals will use various methods, such as biopsy and blood tests to diagnose and/or rule out celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity. Although it may be tempting to eliminate gluten for functional benefits, such as reduction in bloating, skin irritation, or other digestive concerns, be sure to seek medical advice before self diagnosing.