I’m sure you have heard of the Gluten-Free Diet or maybe you’ve considered trying it (or maybe you’re on it as we speak). It has become all the rage, with gluten-free products popping up in mainstream grocery stores, even Target! Restaurants are making sure to add gluten-free choices to their menus too. Listen in to learn more about this diet and decide if it’s for you!
Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking! I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann. On today’s episode, we are going to be discussing the Gluten-Free diet. You will learn about why people may benefit from this diet, why most (many) people won’t, and what group you fall into.
The Gluten-Free Diet is designed to help people who cannot tolerate gluten, the protein found in wheat (and its relatives like spelt), rye, and barley. Other foods, namely oats, can be “contaminated” with gluten if they are harvested and/or processed by the same machines that handle wheat, rye, and barley. The oats would get gluten on them, but don’t naturally contain gluten themselves. Gluten is actually a combination of glutenin and gliadin, two proteins with slightly different properties that act together to make dough that is chewy and springy.
So, what’s the problem with gluten? There is no inherent problem with it. The problem shows up when people’s bodies are unable to tolerate it. This is the case with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease that is in the spotlight these days. With this disease, the ingestion of gluten leads to an immune system response wherein the villi (which make up the thin, hair-/finger-like lining for the intestine) become inflamed and damaged or destroyed. These villi are important in the process of absorption, so this disease inherently leads to malabsorption of nutrients and potential weight loss and malnutrition. Common symptoms are mainly gastrointestinal, including constipation or diarrhea, cramping, and bloating—notice that these are common symptoms of other GI issues like irritable bowel syndrome or gastroenteritis. Other symptoms may include weakness, bone pain, and changes in appetite.
Celiac disease is usually diagnosed by either taking a biopsy of the lining of the first segment of the small intestine (the duodenum) to look for flattened villi OR by testing for certain antibodies. A stool sample can also be tested for steatorrhea, which is increased amounts of fat in the stool, a sign of fat malabsorption.
To put this in perspective, a commonly quoted statistic is that 1 in 133 people, which translates to more than 2 million people in the US (or somewhere around .7% of the population) have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, though many more are estimated to go undiagnosed. Unfortunately, we’re not quite sure what causes this disease, but it is more common in people with other autoimmune disorders, with type 1 Diabetes being just one example. There is also a genetic component, so in those who have a 1st-degree relative with the disease, the amount of diagnosed Celiac disease rises to 1 in 22.
So, how do you treat Celiac Disease? With a gluten-free diet! By removing the offending gluten, the inflammation in the intestines will die down, and the villi will regenerate, allowing nutrients to be absorbed again (this can take some time, though!). This can be very challenging at first, as it seems many foods (especially prepared and packaged foods) contain gluten. Here is a short list of some other foods in addition to wheat, rye, and barley that need to be avoided due to their containing gluten:
Bulgur, Durum, Farina, Graham flour, Semolina, Spelt, and Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye. Note that many commonly used processed foods like bouillon cubes, chips, sauces, and soups may contain gluten, so be on the lookout for gluten free versions.
It may also be beneficial to take a multivitamin for a short time after diagnosis, since you may have decreased levels of some vitamins and minerals, like Calcium, Iron, B12, and Vitamin D.
On the bright side, there are many carbohydrate foods that can be eaten, such as potato, rice, soy, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat. There are also many more gluten-free products available at mainstream stores due to the increase in knowledge about Celiac, but maybe more-so because the gluten-free diet has become a type of fad diet for those who do not have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, and are just trying to lose weight.
Remember that meat, fruits, and vegetables are naturally gluten-free, so no worries with these foods!
You don’t necessarily have to have Celiac Disease to benefit from the Gluten-Free diet. Others may test negative for the disease, but still be gluten sensitive, meaning that they experience similar symptoms after ingesting gluten, and the symptoms can be relieved by the removal of gluten from the diet. This is a little more tricky to diagnose, but you can see if you are gluten sensitive by removing gluten from your diet to see if your symptoms disappear, and then try eating a gluten-containing food to see if the symptoms return. Note that with gluten sensitivity, gluten can still be tolerated in small amounts by some. It is highly individual and differs from case to case.
Both Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity differ from a wheat allergy. An actual allergy to wheat is much less common and involves a dangerous allergic response to wheat products and causes hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing. A wheat-free diet (which is very similar to the gluten-free diet though may possibly include barley and rye if the allergy is not to the gluten protein specifically) is imperative for these people.
Ok, after all that, what do you think? Is the gluten-free diet for you? Do you have GI symptoms after consuming gluten-containing foods? Do the symptoms go away when you eliminate gluten from your diet? Or have you jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon because actresses and your best friend are trying it to lose weight?
If the latter is true, let me tell you that there is no evidence that the gluten-free diet will provide any benefits for you if your body has no problem tolerating gluten. If you happen to lose weight on this diet, it is because you have cut out a lot of calories by eliminating a lot of foods you usually eat. You might even gain weight on this diet because a lot of gluten-free substitutes are much lower in fiber and more calorically dense! (As a side note, going gluten-free may be a warning sign of an underlying eating disorder, as it causes significant food restrictions.)
Unless you have Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity, or a Wheat Allergy, you don’t NEED to be on a gluten-free diet! Period.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me or go to my website. I’d love to hear from you! Thanks again for listening and I’ll see you next time!