Should You Try a Gluten-free Diet?
BY: Winnie Yu
Gluten-free cookies, gluten-free cookbooks, gluten-free celebrities -- with so many things touting the gluten-free lifestyle these days, you may be wondering whether you should go gluten-free too. Adherents say eating gluten-free can ease everything from abdominal pain to heartburn, arthritis to headaches. Some people even claim that it boosts weight loss and improves energy. But should you try a gluten-free diet?
Who Should Go Gluten-free?
The truth is that gluten -- a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley and rye -- is not harmful to most people, says Pam Cureton, a clinical registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.
But for the 1 in 133 people who have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction that causes bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Over time, the gluten damages the small intestine and destroys the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients, which can lead to anemia, osteoporosis and liver damage.
In addition, an estimated 6 percent of the population suffers from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which can cause similar symptoms but doesn’t damage the intestines, says Tricia Thompson, a registered dietitian, author of The Gluten-free Nutrition Guide and founder of GlutenFreeWatchdog.org.
Do You Have Gluten Sensitivity?
If you think your digestive system is balking at gluten, the first thing you should do is get tested for celiac disease. A simple blood test will determine if you have celiac antibodies. If you do, giving up gluten is critical. If you don’t, you might still have gluten sensitivity. However, there’s no test for gluten sensitivity, so it’s not easy to diagnose. After ruling out celiac disease, the next step is to go gluten-free and see if your symptoms improve. Here’s how:
- Know which foods contain gluten. If a food doesn’t say “gluten-free,” check the ingredient list for wheat, barley, rye, malt, oats and brewer’s yeast. Breads and pasta are obvious culprits, but you also need to be wary of salad dressings, sauces and soups -- all of which may have ingredients containing gluten.
- Keep a diary of your symptoms. Most people with gluten sensitivity will notice an improvement within a few weeks, says Cureton.
- Eat a diet that’s healthy, not just gluten-free. Most foods that contain gluten are enriched with B vitamins and iron, says Cureton, but gluten-free foods are not required to be fortified. “If you eat gluten-free, your intake of iron, fiber and B vitamins -- like folate -- may be low,” she says. To get those nutrients, eat gluten-free whole grains, like brown rice, whole corn, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet. Keep in mind that fruits, vegetables and legumes are naturally gluten-free, as are unseasoned beef, pork and poultry.
Gluten-free Isn’t for Everyone
If your body can’t tolerate gluten, research confirms that going gluten-free can alleviate a host of woes, including abdominal pain, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, abdominal bloating, constipation, diarrhea, eczema/skin rash, headache and fatigue, says Cureton. But there’s no science to back up weight-loss claims, and it’s not true that gluten-free is better for everyone.
“Just because a cookie is labeled ‘gluten-free’ does not mean it’s healthy,” says Thompson. “Gluten-free foods are often made from refined flour or starch, like corn starch or rice starch, and there is no redeeming value from a nutritional standpoint.”
What’s more, numerous studies have found that complex carbs from whole grains -- including whole wheat -- are an important part of a healthy diet.
So if your body handles gluten just fine, you’d be better off giving up simple, refined carbs. “The truth is, if you reduce your intake of cakes, pies, cookies and simple carbs -- like white rice and pasta -- you’ll probably feel better,” says Cureton. And you’ll likely lose weight and feel more energetic to boot.
Winnie Yu frequently writes about health and nutrition for Live Right Live Well. Her articles have appeared in Prevention, VIVMag, AARP Bulletin, Diabetic Living and on NYTimes.com. She is the author of What to Eat for What Ails You and the American Academy of Pediatrics' New Mother's Guide to Breastfeeding.