Guest post by Brooke Barley, a Kent State University graduate student working on her master’s in nutrition. Brooke holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Ohio State University.
Gluten. It’s all over the media. Many celebrities swear by it. Popular restaurants have added special, gluten-free menu-items. So, what’s all the buzz about gluten? And is a gluten-free diet right for everyone?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein present in grain products like wheat, rye and barley. Flour contains gluten, which is why it’s found in most breads, pastas, cereals and desserts. You’ll also find it in many foods you would never suspect, such as soy sauce, salad dressings, stabilizers, flavorings and alcoholic beverages. Flour is also a thickening agent for many sauces, soups and gravies.
Gluten can even be in some cosmetics like lipsticks and lotions. Some medications and supplements like chewable vitamins can contain wheat. For someone who needs to (or wants to) be gluten-free, it is essential to become familiar with nutrition labels and to know which ingredients to look for.
Gluten and Its Connection with Celiac Disease
People with celiac disease have an autoimmune response to gluten. If they eat gluten, it triggers antibodies to attack the small intestine, causing extreme damage and inflammation in these tissues. The antibodies degrade the villi on the small intestine, which is where nutrients are absorbed. When the intestine is damaged, the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from the food that is eaten.
Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal bloating, diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. Because the small intestine is damaged and nutrients cannot be absorbed, many additional symptoms of nutrient deficiency arise including anemia, osteoporosis, skin rash and joint pain.
Symptoms vary with each person. Some people may experience constipation instead of diarrhea or may have weight gain instead of weight loss. Some people with celiac disease may exhibit only one or very few of these symptoms.
Wheat Allergy vs. Celiac Disease: What’s the Difference
Some people may not have celiac disease, but instead may have a wheat allergy. Those with celiac disease must avoid all gluten-containing grains, but people with a wheat allergy are primarily concerned with avoiding wheat. Symptoms of a wheat allergy include rash, hives, itchy skin, swelling of throat or tongue, and difficulty breathing or swallowing.
What Is Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
Even though they may not be diagnosed with celiac disease, many people choose to live a gluten-free lifestyle because eating gluten-containing items gives them digestive problems. For those in this category, gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, and a foggy head may result after consuming gluten. Although gluten consumption is not thought to trigger antibodies to attack the small intestine in this case, these people still avoid gluten to avoid digestive discomfort.
Why Are Gluten-Free Diets So Popular?
The gluten-free diet has received much attention for its claims at achieving weight loss. When eating gluten-free, the majority of processed foods and desserts must be eliminated from the diet. Indulging in many convenience foods like pizza, crackers, and cookies is off limits, making it easier to resist these high-calorie temptations. But, as the gluten-free diet is becoming more popular, food companies are coming up with many gluten-free versions of cakes, cookies, pies and the like. In order to make these gluten-free treats taste as indulgent as the regular version, often times the gluten-free version has a higher fat content.
Is a Gluten-free Diet a Healthier Diet?
It is important to realize that just because something is gluten-free does not necessarily mean it is healthier. A gluten-free diet may be considered healthier simply because you avoid the processed, convenience snack foods. The success that some people have losing weight on a gluten-free diet may not be directly due to avoiding gluten, but rather because of what replaces the gluten in the diet. When fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and low-fat dairy replace junk food, it is likely that you will feel more energized and even lose weight.
Although a gluten-free diet may eliminate many temptations and calories, it also makes reaching the recommended amounts of whole grains a challenge. Whole grains that are gluten-free include rice, quinoa, buckwheat, corn and some certified gluten-free oats. Also notable is the fact that most traditional breads and cereals are fortified with many vitamins and minerals. However, most gluten-free products are low in B-vitamins, calcium, Vitamin D, iron, magnesium and zinc. If you are on a gluten-free diet, make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of these vitamins and minerals.
A gluten-free diet may not be for everyone; however, some of the lessons you can learn – such as eating whole grains and avoiding processed junk foods – may be helpful to many. If you are able to eat wheat, barley and rye, consider a this option before going gluten-free: make the majority of your grains whole grains and fill up on fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods.
However, for those that do have symptoms of celiac disease, wheat allergy, or gluten intolerance, be sure to see your doctor immediately as a proper diagnosis and adherence to a gluten-free diet is essential. Image credit Do you live in the Canton, Ohio area and need some help creating a diet that works for you? Let Mercy Weight Management help. Call 330-588-4854 or contact us for more information.