As the awareness of the gluten-free diet increases, so do the reports of improved health and well-being while following the diet. Articles claim improved weight, cholesterol, digestive health, and energy levels with the gluten-free diet. But is this diet a “cure-all” for your diet woes? One must first understand what gluten is and why the gluten-free diet was originally developed.
Gluten is protein found in various grains including wheat, barley, and rye. It provides structure to many grain products including bread, cereal, and desserts. Gluten is hidden in many products including dressings, desserts, and frozen or packaged dinners. Gluten-free foods can also be contaminated after coming in contact with gluten-containing foods. Following a gluten-free diet involves diligent label reading and extensive knowledge of food ingredients that may contain gluten.
There is a condition where following a gluten-free diet is necessary. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body cannot digest the protein gluten. The autoimmune response results in damage to the small intestine where much of the nutrients eaten are absorbed into the body. The damaged intestine cannot properly absorb nutrients including calcium and iron, putting individuals with Celiac disease at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies. The only treatment for Celiac disease is following a gluten free diet which allows the intestine to heal. Strict adherence to the diet is required as even small amounts of gluten can damage the intestine or slow the healing process.a
By following a gluten free diet, many highly processed foods are eliminated from the diet including frozen meals, sweets, and desserts while healthier, naturally gluten-free foods, are increased including fruits, vegetables, and fresh meats. These natural gluten-free foods are not only lower in fat, cholesterol, and sodium, but they are also packed with vitamins/minerals. A diet consisting of low calorie, low fat, and nutrient dense fruits, vegetable, and lean meats can impart many health benefits including weight loss, improved cholesterol, blood pressure and reduced risk of chronic health conditions.
Some gluten-free foods may contain as much fat, sodium, or calories as gluten-containing foods. For individuals without Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, consumption of these higher fat, sodium, and calorie foods impart no health benefit and may increase the risk of chronic disease.
Thus, the gluten-free diet is best suited for those with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Although following certain aspect of the gluten-free diet may improve health, the gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthy diet. By reducing reliance on packaged and processed foods and relying more on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, and low fat dairy products, a healthy diet can be attainable.
By Kirsten Kahler, MS, RD
aFasano, A., & Catassi, C. (2001). Current approaches to diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease: An evolving spectrum. Gastroenterology, 120, 636-651.
Photo Credit: ©Pardue, K. (2011). Message posted to http://naturallyfreerd.com/2011/03/28/celiac-disease-vs-gluten-sensitivity-part-1/