Should we all be avoiding gluten? For most people, a gluten-free diet offers no benefits; in fact, it may even bring unwanted results, such as weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. According to a new study published in this month’s issue of Gastroenterology, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. However, many people are opting to go on a restrictive gluten-free diet because they think it’s healthier. But is it really?
What is Gluten and Celiac?
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that causes affected individuals to have an immune-system reaction to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat (all types, including semolina, durum, spelt, kamut, and faro), rye, and barley. The reaction triggered by the gluten damages the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies that harm the brain, nervous system, bones, liver, and other organs, as well as stunt the growth of children with the disorder. Symptoms of celiac disease make it difficult to diagnose, as they can be vague and hard to pinpoint, for instance, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, unexplained weight loss or gain, and unexplained anemia.
Mayo Clinic researchers say about 1.8 million people have celiac disease, and most are unaware – but many others are going gluten-free without a diagnosis. Researcher Joseph Murray: “You have 1.6 million people who are on a gluten-free diet but without a diagnosis of celiac disease. And we’ve got about the same number of people who have celiac disease don’t know it, and aren’t on the diet they need to be on.”
If you plan to go gluten free, select more fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, and more naturally gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, rather than just buying prepackaged products labeled “gluten free.” The Food and Drug Administration is currently proposing guidelines for “gluten-free” labeling, but currently the agency hasn’t set any standards on the use of the term. The fact that it’s unregulated means that unscrupulous marketers can use it to sell products that could contain small amounts of gluten. Stick to reading labels and avoiding wheat, rye, or barley, or products made in plants that produce those ingredients.
Some of the many gluten-free products on the market can be unhealthy, because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to simulate the texture and satisfying fluffiness that gluten imparts. Another potential pitfall is that gluten-free products are less routinely fortified with iron and vitamins B and D than regular bread products. Vitamins B and D are the ones particularly at risk of being deficient in gluten-sensitive people.
In reality, there’s nothing inherent about a gluten-free diet that will enhance weight loss, unless it helps you “get rid of the junk” and eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are naturally gluten-free.