November 3, 2010

Gluten-Free Diets: Are They Healthier for You?

What do some celebrities, a former president, and the Old Spice® guy have in common? They've switched to gluten-free diets. These days, you can't swing a grocery bag without hitting gluten-free pasta, cookies, and even beer. So what's the deal?

It seems that gluten is the latest dietary demon to make headlines. Madonna served gluten-free food at her 52nd birthday party. Gwyneth Paltrow writes about gluten-free recipes on her Web site. The White House pastry chef says former president Clinton is allergic to wheat flour. And Isaiah Mustafa—the Old Spice guy—says he gave up gluten to stay lean (in addition to working out with Tony Horton!).

Some people eliminate gluten in hopes of alleviating digestive issues like abdominal pain and bloating. Others claim going gluten-free helps them overcome fatigue. Still more people think it'll help them lose weight faster. If you're wondering whether you should go gluten-free, let's explore the subject a bit further.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It gives dough its elastic texture and acts as the "glue" that holds it together. It's also added to many processed foods. Some common sources of gluten are:
  • Beer
  • Bran
  • Bread
  • Candy
  • Cereal
  • Crackers
  • Ice cream
  • Ketchup
  • Lunch meats
  • Pasta
  • Soups and sauces
  • Soy sauce

Could you be allergic to gluten?

Most people have no trouble eating foods that contain gluten. For those with celiac disease, however, gluten is a toxin that can damage the small intestine and lead to nutrient deficiencies. Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, itchy rashes, and unintended weight loss. Over time, people with untreated celiac disease can experience iron-deficiency anemia, decreased bone density, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, and vitamin B12 deficiency, among other health problems.
According to the Celiac Disease Center at The University of Chicago, true celiac disease affects only about 1 percent of the population. Proper diagnosis requires a blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine. So what about all the other people who believe that gluten makes them sick? They may actually be gluten sensitive, which is a less severe but more common reaction. The symptoms are similar (abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue) but they go away quickly after cutting gluten out of your diet for a while, and there's no lasting intestinal damage.
Giving up gluten to lose weight
Some people swear that going gluten-free has helped them lose weight. But according to Dee Sandquist, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, their weight loss is probably a result of eating fewer calories. When people eliminate gluten, they're less likely to eat fast food and packaged foods and more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables. So in many cases, a healthier diet and lower calorie intake is likely the reason for the weight loss, not just giving up bread and cereal.

Here's something else to consider: If you give up gluten in hopes of losing weight, you may be putting your health at risk. Grains are excellent sources of B vitamins, fiber, folate, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and magnesium, and eliminating them completely can lead to nutritional deficiencies and possible illness. Gluten-free diets need to be carefully structured to make up for missing vitamins and nutrients.

The bottom line

If you've been diagnosed with celiac disease, it's very important to eliminate gluten from your diet. And if you think you're sensitive to gluten, you may want to cut back on grain-rich foods and see if you feel better. For the rest of us, however, gluten is a perfectly fine and healthy addition to a balanced diet. There's no reason to avoid it in moderation. So go ahead and eat your Wheaties® before your next workout. Or better yet, drink NutriShake9®
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