With the current popularity of gluten-free diets, many people ask if eating gluten-free is healthier. For people with Celiac disease (about 1 in 100 Americans), maintaining a strict gluten-free diet is a must – it is, in fact, the only treatment. However for the rest of us the question still remains.
Only in recent years have scientific studies emerged about the benefits of a gluten-free diet, and doctors have started diagnosing for non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), also known as gluten intolerance, which describes people who suffer gluten-related health issues without having Celiac disease. Symptoms of NCGS can be similar to Celiac disease, i.e. bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, brain fog, headache, joint pain, weight gain/loss, skin rashes, to name a few. As uncomfortable as these symptoms may be, those with NCGS do not incur intestinal damage when consuming gluten, as is the case with Celiac.
Anecdotally, I have also encountered people who have gone on a gluten-free diet and have seen improvements in arthritis, thyroid function, migraines, eczema, depression, and autism and ADHD in children. In general, gluten molecules are difficult to digest, so even a general boost in energy is not uncommon for people starting a gluten-free diet. These are, however, anecdotal accounts and there is still not enough scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet cures or improves these conditions, or that following a gluten-free diet is healthier for people who aren’t Celiac or gluten sensitive.
Gluten sensitivity can, however, masquerade as other illnesses or disorders, so the best thing to do if you are experiencing some of these issues is to discuss the possibility of NCGS with your doctor. Gluten sensitivity should only be diagnosed after first ruling out wheat allergies and Celiac disease. If you are gluten sensitive, you should see improvement within weeks of following a strict gluten-free diet.
In addition, many people who decide to go gluten-free end up decreasing their overall caloric intake since gluten is present in foods like bread, bagels, chips, cakes and cookies. As long as they are not replacing those foods with gluten-free versions of the same thing that are highly processed and high in calories, sugar, fat and carbs, this could also have a beneficial impact on health and promote weight loss. Many cheap gluten-free alternatives have even more sugar and less fiber, vitamins and minerals than their gluten-filled alternatives, so be sure to read the nutrition panel before you buy.
Whether or not you have gluten sensitivity, eating a healthy diet is always called for—fruits, veggies, healthy oils, beans and proteins such as fish, eggs and chicken are the basis of healthy eating. Then add healthy, gluten-free whole grain products.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to follow a gluten-free diet, some good online resources are glutenfreeliving.com, celiac.com, theDr.com, celiac.org, celiac central.org and gluten.net. You can also email any questions directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and see them answered at www.tastefulpantry.com.
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at Lea@tastefulpantry.com