Is a Gluten-Free Diet for You?

hold-the-glutenEveryone and everywhere, from my trendy roommate to chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, seem to be buzzing about being gluten-free. Before the advent of the “gluten-free” diet craze, going gluten-free was mainly a treatment for those with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s body does not tolerate gluten and a gluten-free diet is necessary. The consumption of gluten in a person with celiac disease results in the inflammation and damage of the small intestine. Patients with celiac disease often experience symptoms such as diarrhea, upset stomach, abdominal pain and bloating. However, in recent days, people are taking up a gluten-free diet for gluten sensitivity and for the touted health benefits. Gluten sensitivity is a distinct disorder from celiac disease. Folks who are gluten sensitive do not test positive for celiac disease and do not have damage to the lower intestine; however, they may have symptoms as severe as celiac disease and feel better once gluten is cut out of their diet. As with every other food fad, you may be wondering about the gluten-free craze and whether it is right for you. Therefore, it’s important to have the low-down on gluten-free and its recent popularity with everyone from health nuts to A–list stars.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Common foods such as bread and pasta contain it unless they are “gluten-free”. It’s often hidden in foods and beverages such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer and licorice.

Why now?

According to many studies, celiac disease is on the rise. The exact cause is unknown but it appears that it is due to environmental factors. The main theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is that western countries, such as the U.S., often have ultra-clean environments that do not adequately expose children to antigens while their immune systems are developing. This means that the immune system’s response to gluten is intolerance because the gut does not deal with antigens properly. Supporting evidence of this hypothesis is that celiac disease is a rarity in developing countries that have less sanitary environments.

A rise in gluten sensitivity has not been quantified, since it is more difficult to track, although there has been an increase in awareness. Individuals with gluten sensitivity often claim their symptoms subside once gluten is removed from their diet and, therefore, an increase in awareness has led to an increase in gluten-free diets.

Is it healthy?

A gluten-free diet can be healthy but there is a strong risk of not getting enough of essential vitamins and nutrients since breads, cereals and grains are often fortified. Key nutrients that may be insufficient in a gluten-free diet are: iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, magnesium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Gluten-free products are often higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium in order to mimic similar foods containing gluten. There are many grains and starches such as quinoa, amaranth and millet that can be included in a gluten-free diet and can provide many necessary vitamins and nutrients. Overall, a gluten-free diet, like any other diet, can be healthy or not depending on one’s own eating habits.

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