Tennis Player Novak Djokovic,Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady GaGa have all gone gluten free. You probably have friends and neighbours who are avoiding it. Should you?
What is gluten anyway? Gluten is a protein found in wheat (includes spelt and kamut), barley, rye and triticale. It is the part of wheat flour that gives elasticity and texture to breads, muffins and cakes. It is also found as an ingredient in many processed foods where you may not expect to find wheat, barley or rye such as sauces, seasonings, deli meats, beer, whiskey and even some medications.
The majority of Canadians have no need to fear gluten in their diet and can handle it well. However for people with Celiac Disease (CD), gluten is an evil intruder on their body’s digestive system. Their body’s immune system abnormally reacts to gluten causing inflammation and damage to the small intestine. This inflammation can make it difficult to absorb certain nutrients important to health such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. Health Canada reports that approximately 1 out of every 100-200 North Americans has Celiac Disease. Those diagnosed with CD must avoid even small crumbs of gluten containing food as it damages the lining of their intestinal tract and often causes unpleasant symptoms such as chronic diarrhea, cramps, bloating, irritability and fatigue.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or gluten intolerance is another area of increasing interest. Studies from the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research have shown that approximately 6 in 100 people may experience Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. The symptoms of abdominal pain and fatigue are similar to CD but it is quite different in that it is not an autoimmune response to the protein gluten thus there is no long -term damage of the intestines. Individuals who have gluten sensitivity feel better when they follow agluten free diet.
If you have symptoms that you think may be caused by CD or a gluten sensitivity see your doctor and ask to be tested for CD before you embark on a gluten free diet. The appropriate tests to definitively diagnose can only be done before any dietary changes or treatment has begun. If your test does come back negative for CD, and you suspect a gluten sensitivity, you can then experiment with a gluten free diet to see if the symptoms disappear. Get some help from a registered dietitian experienced with celiac disease as they can provide expert guidance and support. A food journal, where you record your intake and how you feel, can also be helpful as it will assist you and your doctor/ dietitian come to a conclusion of the benefit of following a gluten free lifestyle.
Alternatively, perhaps you don’t have any symptoms associated with digesting gluten but want to avoid it in order to lose a little weight. The absence of gluten is not likely to be a weight loss solution. It is more likely the absence of baked goods such as muffins, cakes, bagels and breads that is the reason some people will lose weight on this diet.
Most of the ‘gluten free’ snack and dessert products on the market now are not any healthier than their gluten containing versions. Sometimes they are actually unhealthieras they often contain extra fat and sugar and the flours used (e.g. tapioca and rice), are not enriched with iron and B vitamins and are low in fiber. So don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because a food product is labeled gluten free, it is a healthier food andwill assist with weight loss.
Gluten free products are also typically much more expensive. A study at Dalhousie University, published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice Research, revealed that a gluten free product is on average 242% more expensive than its gluten containing version.
But maybe you have read the book: “Wheat Belly” and believe that wheat is the latest villain of the nutrition world! Yes wheat has changed but consider this: many food products that people eat regularly such as highly processed products with artificial flavours, colours, and preservatives are a lot more foreign to the human body than the grain from a wheat stalk. Most of us would feel better and enjoy more energy and better health if we just stopped eating ‘fake foods’ and prepared more real, whole foods at home. If you still want to take on this latest diet trend the best way to go gluten free is to emphasize naturally gluten free foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, eggs, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, fish, poultry and dairy. Now that sounds like a diet I could go “GaGa” over!
Health Canada 2008: The Gluten Connection
Fasano A, Berti I, Gerarduzzi T, et al. Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003;163(3):268–292.
Sapone et al. Divergence of gut permeability and mucosal immune gene expression in two gluten associated conditions: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.