When you look around your favorite grocery store or restaurant, it’s apparent that gluten-free foods have gone mainstream, which may leave you wondering: Are gluten-free diets a fad or are they actually a healthy way of eating?
It comes down to this: If you have celiac disease or a gluten-sensitivity, then, yes, absolutely, a gluten-free diet is a healthy way to eat. But, if you don’t have either of these conditions, there’s no reason you need to eliminate gluten — a protein that’s found in the grains of wheat, barley, rye and triticale, which is a cross of wheat and rye — from your diet.
Only one to six percent of the population have gluten sensitivities and individuals who do may experience bloating or abdominal pain as well as a “foggy brain” after eating gluten. These symptoms might not occur for several hours or even days after eating.
For those with celiac dis-ease, though, consuming gluten can lead to serious health implications. When an individual with celiac disease eats gluten, it triggers an immune response that can damage the small intestine. When the intestine is damaged, it makes it difficult for the body to absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. This can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, cancer and infertility. Symptoms of celiac disease can include gas, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, weakness and vomiting. Also, stools might be bulky, loose and more frequent. Some have no symptoms at all, yet the damage may still occur.
If you don’t have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity and you go on a gluten-free diet, you may be missing out on key nutrients that are available in grains. These nutrients include iron, calcium, fiber, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate. For those who don’t consume gluten, we recommend consuming flours and food made with amaranth, arrowroot, beans, buckwheat, corn, cornmeal, gluten-free nut and oat bran, quinoa, rice, sorghum, soybeans, tapioca or teff. It’s a good idea to eat a variety of these flours and grains to draw different nutrients from them.
Think you might have a gluten sensitivity? As with any health-related question, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional first. We’ll need to do a blood test and possible biopsy of the intestine to properly diagnose celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity before an individual begins a gluten-free diet.
Often people might think they need to go gluten-free, but actually have a wheat allergy and your physician can help you discern the difference. Our number one goal is to provide patients with the tools to embrace a diet that benefits their health and helps them thrive.
(Leslie Belfanti is a registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente’s Keizer Station Medical Office.)