A gluten-free diet: to try or not to try? That is the question. What is all the hype about and what in the world is gluten anyway?
Let’s start with the basics. Gluten is a protein found in many grain products including wheat, barley, rye, or a crossbreed of these grains. One of the challenges is that gluten can also be found in products that do not naturally contain this protein, in part due to cross contamination during processing. For example, oats do not naturally contain gluten but may have trace amounts depending on where the product was processed.
Research has proven with certainty that there is at least one disease that requires a gluten-free diet: Celiac Disease. In a nutshell, for individuals with celiac disease, gluten decreases the surface area of the microvilli on the small intestine. Microvilli are tiny, hair-like projections, which are essential in nutrient absorption. When gluten enters the body, the surface of the small intestine becomes smooth, leading to malabsorption and malnutrition. This is one type of autoimmune disorder.
If celiac disease is the only condition in which a gluten-free diet has been proven to be the single treatment option, why have 29% of Americans adopted a gluten-free diet?
I ask myself the same question.
Many people claim that adopting a gluten-free lifestyle results not only in weight loss but an overall sense of wellbeing. But what is really going on? Dr. Joseph Murray, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, gives insight to possible reasons why. “The number of people going gluten-free vastly outnumbers the number of people who truly have a biological problem tolerating gluten. Some people feel better when gluten is eliminated for many reasons-including the placebo effect, they eat less, their diet is healthier, they believe it is better for them-and when they return to their old diets, they start feeling bad” (Food & Nutrition, September/October 2015).
Additionally, in 2012, the term “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) was coined to describe individuals who are not diagnosed with celiac disease but claim to feel better when adopting a gluten-free diet. In other words, a NCGS diagnosis is often given to people who do not have an autoimmune disorder or allergy but appear to feel better when avoiding gluten.
Now that we have a little background on the subject, where does that leave us? There are probably special circumstances beyond celiac disease where an individual may benefit from a gluten free diet. However, the vast majority of people do not need to rush home to destroy all traces of gluten from their pantry. My intention is to inform you of the purpose behind a gluten free diet (celiac disease), allow you a moment to take a deep breath (do this now), and let you off the hook of following yet another fad in the nutrition world.
Once again we are back to the basics: whole foods most of the time, fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains (yes, including the ones with gluten), low fat dairy, plenty of water and exercise. Start here. Monitor how you feel for several months. THEN, if you are still having symptoms that do not improve, a gluten free diet may be warranted. Maybe…