It seems these days that the gluten-free diet is growing in popularity. Some people are eliminating it from their diets all on their own without consulting a doctor. The question is, does avoiding gluten truly offer some health benefits or is it just another fad diet?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein that is found most commonly in wheat, barley and rye. It is what gives bread its structure and allows it to rise while holding its shape instead of crumbling. Gluten also happens to be a thickener and a flavor enhancer so it can be found in less obvious places like soups, broths, gravies, sauces, salad dressings, bouillon, spice blends, candy, deli meats, some dairy products, vinegars and liquors.
For the 1% of Americans who have a condition called Celiac disease, consuming the most minute amount of gluten can cause a severe reaction by the immune system which damages the intestinal lining. This can lead to malabsorption of many vitamins and minerals. Left undiagnosed, this condition can lead to chronic health problems such as anemia, osteoporosis or intestinal cancer. Unfortunately, celiac disease is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome due to similar symptoms which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. A legitimate diagnosis requires blood tests showing antibodies to gluten and an intestinal biopsy showing the damaged lining.
A less severe condition that affects about 15% of the population is called 'gluten sensitivity.' This condition does not cause damage to the intestinal lining nor does it lead to nutrient deficiencies. It's this condition that is perhaps responsible for the increasing popularity of the gluten-free diet, because despite testing negative for celiac disease, these people seem to feel better when they go gluten-free and some lose weight. The only truly reliable test for gluten sensitivity is a trial elimination of gluten to determine if symptoms ebb and flow with its intake.
Some who try this elimination diet will lose weight but this is most likely because avoiding gluten means avoiding a lot of foods. Avoiding a lot of foods tends to lead to consuming fewer calories and as we all know, consuming fewer calories can lead to weight loss. Also, some people may feel better when they think they're giving up only gluten, but due to modern food processing and genetic modifications, gluten may be paired up with other food additives and perhaps it's those which are causing an adverse reaction.
The Bottom Line
Just because gluten is harmful to some, doesn't mean it's harmful for everyone. Eliminating gluten from your diet will not offer you any health benefits unless you are allergic or sensitive to it, any more than eliminating milk from your diet will offer you benefits if you are not lactose intolerant.
If you're having a lot of stomach issues and suspect it could be a gluten allergy, speak with your primary care physician. The dietitians at RMH Healthcare can also meet with you to assist you with your dietary needs. To speak with an RMH dietitian, call 540-689-6339.
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