Is a gluten-free diet right for you? Find out in this gluten-free diet review.
Gluten-free diets have become increasingly more popular over the last several years, despite diagnosed celiac disease remaining constant at about 1% of the US population (1,2). Gluten-free products are on the rise, too, with 28% annual growth between 2004 and 2011 raking in over $2 billion annually (3). Interestingly, the number of people without celiac disease following a gluten-free diet is more than 1.5 times the number of people living with celiac disease following a gluten-free diet (2.7 million vs. 1.76 million) (1).Is a #glutenfree #diet right for you? Learn more here! Click To Tweet
Gluten Free Diet Review
What is gluten?
If you think most people don’t know what gluten is, despite claiming they do, you’re right. A recent survey found that only 35% of over 1,000 respondents correctly identified what gluten is (4). Gluten is a protein comprised of gliadins and glutenins found in wheat, barley and rye.
What is a gluten-free diet?
A gluten-free diet avoids all foods that contain wheat, barley and rye or their derivatives. Inherently, fruits, vegetables (including potatoes), animal meats, dairy, rice, oats (if not cross-contaminated, though some studies have shown that many are), beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and a number of grains like quinoa, corn and buckwheat are gluten-free. Any foods that contain flour or are derived from wheat, barley or rye have gluten and would be avoided.
Why is a gluten-free diet important for celiac disease?
A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Celiac disease is an inherited disorder in which eating gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the finger-like projections along the intestines (called villi) which absorb nutrients from food, flattening and distorting them. Because of the damage done to the villi, the body isn’t able to absorb nutrients properly and it causes symptoms like diarrhea, bloating and gas, fat in the stool, weight loss, fatigue and more. In children it may cause chronic diarrhea, failure to thrive and iron-deficiency anemia among others. The only treatment for celiac disease is strict avoidance of gluten for life. With strict avoidance, the villi are able to remain in tact and function normally.
Is it ok to follow a gluten-free diet without celiac disease?
Yes. It’s not particularly harmful to “go gluten-free,” though probably not necessarily helpful. If you are going to avoid gluten, ideally you would replace gluten-containing foods with other high-fiber, nutrient-rich foods like naturally gluten-free grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes and the like. Gluten-free foods are not inherently healthier than gluten-containing foods (yes, a gluten-free cookie is still a cookie!).
What about autism?
There have been two small studies noting improvement of social, cognitive and communication skills with a gluten-free, casein-free (casein is found in cow’s milk) diet in kids with diagnosed autism spectrum disorder compared to the control groups (5,6).
Can you lose weight on a gluten-free diet?
Yes and no.
There have absolutely been personal accounts of people losing weight on a gluten-free diet. Prior to 2012 there had been no published research of a gluten-free diet strictly for weight loss, but I was able to find one recent abstract only (3,7). In the anecdotal, personal accounts, weight loss might occur due to cutting out a number of highly-processed, refined grains (some cereals, snack foods such as crackers, and empty calories like cookies, cakes, brownies, etc.) and replacing them with lower calorie, high-fiber alternatives like fruits and vegetables. An abstract was published in Clinical Nutrition in 2015 showing significantly greater weight loss in a gluten-free, calorie-controlled (1800 calorie) diet vs. calorie-controlled (1800 calorie) diet only in a small sample of 64 individuals over 6 months. The full study was not published, which makes evaluation challenging. Possibly related could be whether or not the gluten-free dieters started eating less carbohydrate. We know earlier research has observed more significant weight loss in low carbohydrate diets versus regular healthy diets for weight loss up to 12 months, after which weight loss rates level between the two approaches. Further research might shed light on gluten-free diets for weight loss or potential mechanisms of action.
On the flip side, three studies have shown weight gain in those with celiac disease after going on a gluten-free diet (3). This is likely because removing gluten from the diet has given the villi an opportunity to repair, and now that they are functioning properly food is being absorbed rather than malabsorbed as previously.
Could you have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Possibly. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a newer disorder defined by a group of experts (8,9). This syndrome is essentially characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms (bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, etc.) and a few non-gastrointestinal symptoms (tiredness, headache, among others) with gluten intake and relief of symptoms with avoidance of gluten, however these individuals have no biomarkers, histological abnormalities or changes in the intestinal mucosa as would be found in celiac disease or a wheat allergy. That being said, there is significant debate over the definition, epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis and follow-up, given there are no true markers aside from excluding celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet Right for You?
As always, you be the judge! There isn’t harm in avoiding gluten and there’s not necessarily a risk of nutritional deficiency strictly from only avoiding gluten. There also isn’t harm in consuming gluten if you don’t have celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
If you do choose a gluten-free diet, replace gluten-containing foods with nutrient-rich high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables or naturally gluten-free grains or starches like beans. Keep in mind a “gluten-free” label is not a health label; it does not mean that product is healthier than its gluten-containing counter-part.
Disclosures: None. This post was not created in affiliation with any product or brand.
I hope you found this gluten-free diet review helpful!
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