Would you be healthier (and thinner!) on a gluten-free diet?
It’s getting easier and easier to find gluten-free products these days, which is welcome news for the millions of people with celiac disease. Gluten, which is found in wheat and certain other grains, can cause serious health problems for people with celiac disease. But are gluten-free products also healthier for people without celiac disease? Are there risks involved in cutting out gluten? This week, I’ll give you my quick and dirty tips on the gluten-free diet.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and certain other cereal grains, including rye and barley. Most people tolerate this protein just fine. But for people with celiac disease, this protein triggers an immune reaction in the gut, which if left untreated can cause permanent damage to the lining of the small intestine. Untreated celiac disease also can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies because the damaged intestines are not able to absorb important nutrients.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is fairly common—affecting about 1 in every 100 people. But a lot of them don’t know they have it. That’s not too surprising because the symptoms can be a little vague. They might include gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. (Click here for more on the symptoms of celiac disease.) Celiac is diagnosed with a blood test or by biopsy.
Celiac is not the same as wheat allergy or gluten intolerance, although they can cause similar symptoms. And the solution for all three conditions is the same: a gluten-free diet will relieve symptoms and, in the case of celiac disease, prevent permanent damage to the bowel lining. (Click here for more on the difference between celiac disease and wheat allergies)
Which Foods Contain Gluten?
As I mentioned before, going gluten-free is getting much easier. Gluten-free foods—including pastas, crackers, cookies, cereal, and even breads—have become widely available and better-tasting. And the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in 2006 has made it easier to identify products that contain common allergens.
But it still requires some diligence. Gluten turns up in products you might not expect, like soy sauce, vinegar, beer, vitamin supplements, and some prescription drugs. Also, be aware that products labeled “wheat-free” are not necessarily gluten-free. With packaged foods, you’ll need to become a label sleuth. Fortunately, there are lots of organizations to offer information, guidance, and support.
What are the Risks of the Gluten-free Diet?
There are a couple of things to watch out for on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-free products tend to be lower in many nutrients--including folic acid and other B vitamins, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin D-- than their gluten-containing counterparts. It’s not that wheat is all that nutritious; it’s that wheat flour is almost always fortified with these nutrients. Gluten-free substitutes are often unfortified.
There are plenty of other sources for all of these nutrients of course.