gluten

A few days ago I was talking to a young woman in her mid twenties and I asked her if any of her friends where following the gluten free diet.  She said yes and they all felt better after making the dietary change.  This brief conversation indicated to me the confusion and misinformation surrounding gluten. What is it and should everyone avoid it?

Below are some of the basic facts about gluten and also some of the “rumors”.

FACT-

  1. Gluten is a naturally occurring part of wheat.
  2. Celiac (gluten intolerance) is a real disease that can be diagnosed through a blood test and GI biopsy.  About 3 million people in the US have celiac disease.
  3. Gluten sensitivity is different from celiac disease and is harder to diagnose because there are no tests.

FICTION-

  1. Everyone should eat gluten free because gluten is bad for you.
  2. Eliminating gluten from your diet will help you lose weight and give you more energy.
  3. A gluten free diet is easy to follow- just don’t eat white breads or pasta.

When I was a dietetic student in the ‘70s, I learned that celiac disease was a serious but very rare condition.  Now, in 2012 it is not rare and almost popular.  There is a website called Glutenista that lists all the celebrities and athletes with either celiac or a gluten sensitivity.  Gluten free foods used to be impossible to find and now grocery stores have shelves devoted to them.

In a current study published in the “American Journal of Gastroenterology”  a group of 7,800 people were tested for Celiac disease, 35 people tested positive for the disease but 29 of them didn’t even know they had the disease and were not following a gluten free diet.  On the other hand, about 25 % of the US population is currently trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets.

In our culture, we like to label foods “good or bad”.  Gluten has now become one of those bad foods- joining trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, red meat and dairy as an ingredient to avoid.  Identifying a food as “bad” and making a conscious to avoid it is a major principle of many fad diets and because gluten really does make some people very sick, it has fueled this new diet fad.

A gluten free diet is not easy to follow and if you have do not have problems digesting gluten it is not a healthy diet.  Gluten is found in small amounts in many commonly eaten foods and beverages like beer, soy sauce, processed meats, and flavorings so reading food labels carefully is essential.  The breads, pastas and baking mixes made from alternative flours are often low in fiber, calorically dense and more expensive. For example, a 14 ounce loaf of gluten free bread is $6.49 compared to a 1 lb 8 oz. loaf of whole wheat bread at $3.59.  A 6 oz box of Gluten free Mac and Cheese is $4.49 compared to a $1.49 for the box made with wheat.

Why do people claim to feel better when they eliminate gluten from their diets?  It could be that their diets consisted of mostly refined white flour foods and when they gave up gluten they began eating more fruits and vegetables.  Or it could be the placebo effect because believing you are doing something healthy has a profound effect on your mental state and how you feel.

If you think you have a problem with gluten, see your doctor before you change your diet.  Don’t eliminate gluten before you are tested because you need gluten in your system for the blood test to determine if you have the condition.  Both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity present a wide array of symptoms so you need to discuss them with your doctor to make sure you are not missing the diagnosis of another serious condition.

For the minority of people that do suffer from gluten issues it is a blessing to have all of the new products to choose from and the online support system.  The gluten free foods and resources have made managing their illness much easier.  For all those following the fad, I think it is time to look at other ways to improve your diet.  Grains like whole wheat, oats and barley provide fiber, B vitamins and vitamin E.  Taking away grains from your diet if you don’t need to actually does more harm than good!