By: Shoshana Kosman, RD/LD
These days it seems that almost every grocery store has a section dedicated to gluten-free products. For those who have an actual sensitivity to gluten or who suffer from celiac disease, this is a welcome new trend. However, for most Americans who do not have any problems with eating gluten, adopting a gluten-free diet can be pointless at best and harmful at worst.
Due to clever marketing that brands gluten-free products as “healthier,” more and more people are opting to go gluten-free. However, this dietary plan should only be adopted by people who have a genuine need to stop eating gluten; such as those who have celiac disease, a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance.
Celiac disease is a hereditary auto-immune disorder that causes the body to have an abnormal immune response to gluten. Every time a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye, the body attacks itself by damaging the villi of the small intestines. This destruction makes the small intestines unable to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment and nutritional deficiencies. Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, bone pain and skin rashes. However, many people with celiac disease do not express symptoms, causing the disease to go undetected in 90-95% of cases.
Gluten intolerance refers to a difficulty with the digestion of gluten. This condition is not immune-related, so a person who has gluten intolerance experiences adverse effects only when gluten is passing through the digestive system. This means that an individual with gluten intolerance will not suffer any permanent damage from eating gluten. However, he or she will experience discomfort after eating gluten, such as gassiness, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Once the ingested gluten passes out of the person’s system, these symptoms tend to go away fairly quickly.
A wheat allergy expresses itself with symptoms similar to that of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, but is a very different kind of condition. A wheat allergy occurs when an individual experiences an allergic reaction upon eating wheat or wheat-related proteins. These symptoms might include rashes in the mouth or on the surface of the skin, wheezing, swollen lips and diarrhea.
Given that the adverse effects of celiac disease, gluten intolerance or a wheat allergy can be avoided by simply eliminating gluten from one’s diet, adopting a gluten-free diet is a beneficial course of action for individuals with these problems. It is important to note that going gluten-free does not necessarily mean one is automatically healthier. In fact, many gluten-free products on the market today are fairly unhealthy, as they can be high in fat, cholesterol or have a high number of calories without much nutritional value. Going gluten-free can also be an expensive practice, as many gluten-free products are priced much higher than their non-gluten-free counterparts. If you have problems with eating gluten you should include in your diet lots of natural whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. All of which are nutritious and safe for your body but do not have the hefty price tag that comes with being specifically branded “gluten-free.”
If you do not have celiac disease, gluten insensitivity or a wheat allergy, eating a gluten-free diet can actually be harmful. This is because food products that contain gluten also come with essential vitamins and minerals that are important for overall health. For example, many gluten products like whole-grain bread, rye, couscous and barley, contain crucial B-vitamins and minerals, such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and folic acid. In addition, they contain other key nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, zinc and manganese, which are high in dietary fiber and are crucial for the maintenance of the digestive tract. To top it all off, a gluten-free diet may lower the amount of bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract, which could lead to a lowered immune system.
When considering whether to choose the gluten-free option at your next meal or grocery store visit, keep in mind that certain diets are crucial for some and mere fads for others. Take a step back to assess your body’s true needs. For some people who have celiac disease, gluten intolerance or a wheat allergy, the increase in availability of gluten-free products and options is a true cause for celebration. But for others who are fortunate enough not to have problems with gluten, it actually can be healthier to opt for healthy food products that contain gluten, so that you can treat your body to the important vitamins, minerals and nutrients that they offer.