Walk down the aisles of any supermarket these days and you’ll see dozens of products labeled “gluten free.” Even restaurants are jumping on the gluten-free train, adding new menu items or identifying those that don’t contain the substance. Social media is overrun with articles, recipes and personal stories of the wonders of embracing a gluten-free lifestyle.
Gluten is found in many foods, primarily baked goods made from grains include wheat, barley and rye. It’s the protein, activated by kneading, that holds the air pockets created by the yeast. Without gluten, baked goods tend to be flat and dense, rather than light and fluffy like a typical cake or loaf of bread. The problem is for some people, gluten causes inflammation of the lower intestine. Known as celiac disease, this inflammation causes upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea and pain. In time, the inflammation can permanently damage the lining of the intestines, preventing the body from absorbing nutrients from food. This can lead to malnutrition and other issues.
For those living with celiac disease, eliminating gluten from their diet relieves symptoms and prevents complications. However, the number of people who have the medical necessity to remove gluten from their diets is actually quite small; researchers suggest fewer than 2 million people actually suffer from the condition. But some studies indicate more than a quarter of Americans — 28 percent of adults — adhere to some form of a gluten-free diet. This has doctors concerned, because going gluten free is not always the healthiest option.
Self-Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis
Many people who decide to eliminate gluten from their diets do so based on self-diagnosis. Perhaps they have some symptoms, such as bloating or upset stomach, after eating certain foods. Other people hear about how others have experienced positive results, including weight loss, as a result of limiting or cutting out the protein altogether, and decide to do so themselves. Either way, doctors say, the result is many people cut their gluten intake without any valid reason for doing so or fail to address the real problem behind their symptoms based on an incorrect assumption.
Some people have gastrointestinal issues due to Crohn’s disease, which has symptoms virtually identical to those of celiac. Crohn’s is also marked by intestinal inflammation, but the causes are different from those of celiac. While in some cases going gluten free can reduce the symptoms of Crohn’s, for most people, medication is a more effective option for managing the disease. Because the only way to determine whether celiac or Crohn’s is present is a blood test (and in some cases, endoscopic procedures), doctors caution people against diagnosing themselves with celiac or a gluten intolerance, noting they could do more harm than good.
Why We Need Gluten
Doctors and nutritionists admit that gluten-free diets have some benefits. Going gluten free means building a diet around fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and meats. Because gluten is most often found in foods considered “unhealthy,” such as processed snacks, cookies, cakes, imitation meat products, candy, French fries, commercial sauces and salad dressings and other processed foods, such as seasoned rice or boxed dinners, removing those foods from your diet isn’t a bad thing.
However, cutting out all gluten also means cutting out healthy grains from the diet, which the body needs for optimum nutrition. Not only do whole grains provide necessary fiber and protein, they also provide the carbohydrates that create glucose to fuel all of the cells of the body. Glucose is vital to maintaining energy, and encouraging tissue growth and regeneration. Foods other than grains do provide these vital nutrients, but for most people, eating grain-based products is the most expedient way to get the right amount of carbohydrates.
Those who have opted for the gluten-free route argue they feel better and healthier than they did before making the switch, which is admittedly challenging for many people because gluten is present in so many foods we eat every day. Doctors counter that yes, most people without a medical reason to cut gluten feel better when they do so, but that’s probably due to maintaining a healthier diet overall than any effects of a gluten-free lifestyle.
Some experts also note the gluten-free trend can also be dangerous to those who do have a diagnosed medical condition. Restaurants and food manufacturers, eager to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, have created products without fully understanding the intricacies of the disease — and run the risk of cross-contaminating supposedly gluten-free products with those that contain the protein. For someone with celiac disease, such cross-contamination could lead to painful or dangerous symptoms.
The bottom line when it comes to a gluten-free lifestyle is you should not make the decision on a whim, or based on the advice of a friend or family member — and not as part of a weight loss or overall healthier eating plan. Going gluten free is best accomplished under the direction of a doctor, and only after discussing your symptoms and nutritional needs. If you need to reduce or cut the amount of gluten you eat, it’s easier to do so than ever before, but do not make such a change just because it’s the trendy thing to do.