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Should I Be Gluten Free?

Contributed by Elisa Marley, RD, CD

Why is it that when you go to the grocery store you keep seeing all these gluten free products?  Why does it appear like celebrities and athletes are touting its’ praise? Going gluten free seems to be just what everybody is doing…so it makes you wonder…should I be eliminating gluten in my diet?

Twenty five percent of the US population limits their consumption of gluten despite not being medically required to do so.  The main purpose of a gluten free diet is to treat celiac disease or reduce the symptoms of gluten sensitivity.  Gluten is a protein that is naturally found in wheat and grains and is also often added to foods during processing to give them texture.  People who have celiac cannot tolerate gluten.  It causes inflammation to the lining of their intestines and can lead to chronic diarrhea or constipation, weight loss, abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas and anemia.  It is important to specify that celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that needs to be diagnosed and managed by a doctor and is not terribly common.  To put it in perspective, according to Beyond Celiac, the leading patient advocacy and research-driven celiac disease organization, the “pooled global prevalence of celiac disease was 1.4%” of the population.  Approximately 6% of Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Meaning, they do not have celiac disease, but they are sensitive and may have reactions to gluten.  So, the percentage of those truly needing to limit gluten in their diet for medical reasons is relatively limited.   

More often today people tend to go gluten free because they are convinced it will help them lose weight or they perceive it to be healthier in some way.  They believe it is better to avoid gluten and tend to think about it in the same way that they think of limiting sugar, salt and fat in their diet.  The weight loss associated with going gluten free is usually the result of the person eliminating a lot of processed food from their diet rather than the elimination of gluten itself.  However, by cutting gluten out of your diet you may be depriving yourself of other very important nutrients, whole grains, fiber and B vitamins.  There is nothing healthy about that!

Working on a more balanced approach to eating will always produce better long-term weight management results than any fad or restricted diet out there.  Improving eating patterns is always about embracing greater balance and variety in your diet.  Good starting points include a shift away from more processed foods and placing greater emphasis on whole foods, improving hydration practices, eating more fruits and vegetables and limiting sugary beverages and treats.

If you think you may have a sensitivity to gluten or celiac disease you should see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.  A lab test can be done to determine the presence of an antibody to gluten in your blood. 

If you are looking to manage your weight or blood sugar levels, increase your energy, or would simply like guidance on how to better fuel your body, you should seek the guidance and support of a dietitian to be certain that your approach to eating meets all your nutritional needs.