Gluten-Free: Is it for Me?

Before your alarm goes off, no - I am NOT going gluten-free. This post is meant to present information on what 'gluten-free' means, who actually needs to follow the meal-plan, whether you should jumpy on board, and more. (Note: this post is long - but well worth the read!).

First, let's talk about what 'gluten-free; is all about. Celiac's disease is also called gluten-sensitivity or gluten-induced enteropathy. In simple terms, this describes an illness related to the intestines. Gluten is an ingredient present in rye, oats, wheat, and barley. When these substances are broken down, gluten is produced. Normally, our intestines can break this component down. However, in some people, the immune system makes antibodies against gluten. These antibodies (think of little soldiers) start attacking the intestine, and this produces inflammation. The inflammation damages the ability of the intestine to absorb nutrients. The individual may experience stomach cramps, weight loss, diarrhea, nausea, and other symptoms. Left untreated, the person can become very ill.

Celiac's disease can be diagnosed by many means. A blood test can show antibodies to transglutaminase, the enzyme that breaks gluten down in the intestines. Also, if the person starts a gluten-free diet and symptoms go away - including the antibodies - Celiac's disease is confirmed.

The treatment sounds simple: to follow a gluten-free diet (and by diet, I mean 'meal plan). However, this sounds easier than it really is. The individual must avoid rye, oats, wheat, and barley. Breads and pastas need to be avoided. But, the person needs to also avoid any foods that may contain these ingredients, which can be tricky if they are hidden. For example, some ice creams, crackers, pancakes, cream sauces, drinks, etc. may contain sources of gluten. As you can imagine, this means carefully reading all nutrition labels and selecting products that are 100% safe. Also, if you have ever walked into a grocery store or looked at store prices, you will find that gluten-free foods are more expensive than other foods. This means that someone with Celiac's will need to spend more money on their meals in order to avoid gluten. Moreover, going out to order meals can be challenging, as the individual must be aware of sources of gluten in fast-food or restaurant meals (or drinks) they are purchasing.

So, now the big question is: why are so many people, who don't have Celiac's disease, following a gluten-free diet? There has been a lot of speculation that going gluten-free can aid in weight-loss or detoxification. But is this true? Research is mixed on this topic. However, let me clear: research shows that a gluten-free diet is NECESSARY for anyone with Celiac's because it stops symptoms and prevents complications. However, for those without Celiac's, following a gluten-free diet does not automatically make you healthier or lose weight faster. So, why is there so much hype about gluten-free for those without Celiac's. Does it really cause weight-loss?

No. The simple answer is this: eliminating sources of gluten means that it is harder to eat breads, pasta, and sweets. So, if you are not diagnosed with Celiac's, but are going gluten-free, you will avoid these carbohydrates. Most people end up eating fruits and veggies instead, which can lead to weight-loss. Some people claim that this also prevents cancer, but again, it doesn't. The simple, logical answer is that following a gluten-free diet in the absence of Celiac's is not 'the cure for weight-loss and cancer prevention'. What it DOES do is challenges the individual to avoid gluten in the diet, which can make the person forced to rely on other foods (such as fruits) for meals.

But, you can enjoy fruits and veggies without eliminating gluten. If you follow a diet in moderation, you can eat breads, sweets, fruits, meats, etc. - and still be healthy and happy. You need not eliminate gluten in order to do this. But, the messages you hear from people are tempting - and deceptive: 'I've been gluten-free and I'm loving it!' or 'I lost xxx pounds since stopping gluten and I'm so happy'. Other messages include 'I'm gluten-free and decreasing my risk for cancer'  or 'I've been gluten-free and I'm loving my veggies and all the cool stuff I made without gluten!'.

Seriously now. We need to watch what we write. Let me be clear: if you aren't diagnosed with Celiac's disease. there is no reason why you should not be eating gluten products. In fact, avoiding gluten can lead to nutrient and vitamin deficiencies (see for more info on this). Not to mention that raving on and on about following a gluten-free diet and how thrilled you are isn't fair to those who are FORCED to adopt this meal plan because of their illness, and are struggling or feel sad/angry about it (this article highlights some of these points Plus, eliminating gluten-containing products can lead to eliminating other foods, body image disturbances, and eating disorders (see for an interesting article on this issue).

So, what is the bottom line? The take-home message? If you think you may have Celiac's disease because of symptoms you are experiencing, talk to your healthcare provider about them. And if you have Celiac's disease, there are a lot of resources available to help you enjoy a balanced, fun, and healthy diet without eating gluten. If you have Celiac's disease, know that there is hope because you CAN enjoy food without gluten and experience less symptoms (and please ignore anyone who belittles your illness, tells you it is 'all in your head')! If you don't have Celiac's disease, you need not follow a gluten-free diet. Nor should you cave into all the hypes, which aren't supported by research or are false claims, about how following a gluten-free diet is the best decision someone made. Please, be wise about what you believe - whether this is from some self-proclaimed professional on TV, or your best friend. Remember that enjoying a balance of all foods is the best way to go!

If there is a common theme that you should be picking up by now, it's that all these fad-diets, the quick weight-loss, cancer-preventing, key-to-happiness diets or food fads...they all don't work. What DOES work? Following a lifestyle that is enjoyable, fun, and full of different foods. Not depriving yourself of any foods, and not labelling foods as good and/or bad. Note the comic to the right - a perfect example of how various 'diets' claim to be the best...and how little sense this makes.

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