Adults Featured Healthy News Kids Seniors Teens — 18 November 2013

The truth about gluten-free diets and your health.

By: Jodie Shield, RD

Many of you have been asking me about the gluten-free diet. Should I be on one? Is it safe? Will it help me lose weight? What foods are gluten-free? So, before you forego trying my delicious banana bread recipe, I thought it was time to set the record straight. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye and a variety of food products made with these grains. And without a doubt, gluten is in vogue. I just did a Google search, which resulted in 4.2 million results – yikes! But the truth is: most people don’t need to be on a gluten-free diet. In fact, eliminating gluten from your diet unnecessarily may even be harmful. So how do you know if a gluten-free diet is right for you? After sorting through all of the clutter, here’s what leading health experts and the research has to say about who should be on a gluten-free diet.


You Need a Gluten-Free Diet If You Have . . .

Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 percent of Americans. It’s triggered by eating foods with gluten, which then causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this intestinal damage prevents important nutrients from being absorbed and may lead to gastrointestinal cancer. A life-long, strict gluten-free diet is the remedy for people with celiac disease. How do you know if you have Celiac disease? For now, the only way is to go through a series of tests. First a blood test to detect antibodies related to an abnormal immune response. Second, if the test is positive, a biopsy to confirm the small intestines is inflamed.

Wheat Allergy. Although quite rare, about 0.1 percent of people in Western countries suffer from wheat allergies. They are specifically allergic to wheat proteins. A wheat-free diet is the primary treatment, which includes eliminating gluten from foods made with wheat. However, nonwheat grains that contain gluten are permissible.

Gluten Sensitivity. About 6 percent of Americans suffer from gluten sensitivity also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. When they eat foods with gluten, the small intestine is not damaged but they experience celiac-type symptoms such as: fatigue, headaches, bloating, gas and diarrhea. Once gluten is eliminated from the diet, the symptoms disappear. Since many people with lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, type one diabetes, and psoriasis are often gluten sensitive, it is important to check with your doctor before starting a gluten-free diet.


You DON’T need a Gluten Free Diet If You Are . . .

Trying to Lose Weight. Currently there is no published scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet promotes weight loss. In fact, many gluten-free products actually are loaded with sugar and fat to improve the taste making them a higher calorie option than their gluten-containing counterpart.

Healthy. Again, there is no proof that a gluten-free diet is healthier than a balanced diet recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Many gluten-free products are missing key nutrients such as iron, folate, and other b vitamins. In addition, many experts feel eliminating gluten, when not medically necessary, puts people at risk for developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. That’s because a gluten-free diet eliminates whole grain wheat products which studies have shown play a key role in preventing these health problems.

Bottom line: Before you give up granola, whole-wheat waffles, and other foods that contain gluten, check with your doctor.

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About Author


Jodie Shield, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N.
Jodie Shield has been a consultant and spokesperson in the field of nutrition for over two decades. A former national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (1989-1995), she has worked extensively with the Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center and taught nutrition and medical dietetics at the University of Illinois. Currently she is a complemental faculty member of the College of Health Sciences in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Rush University in Chicago.

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