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The scoop on gluten-free eating

{shared with permission from Essentia Health}

Gluten-free has achieved “health halo” status. Celebrities tout their gluten-free diets as healthier and a survey found many Americans believe such a diet improves both physical and mental health.

In 2014, Consumer Reports’ National Research Center surveyed more than 1,000 Americans and discovered 63 percent thought a gluten-free diet would improve their physical or mental health. Among the top benefits cited were better digestion, gastrointestinal function, healthy weight-loss, increased energy, lower cholesterol and a stronger immune system.

Yet there is very limited research to substantiate any of these beliefs, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Unless you have celiac disease or true gluten sensitivity, there is no clear medical reason to eliminate it, Fasano says.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is one of the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a combination of wheat and rye). Gluten gives foods structure – it’s what holds a slice of bread together. Gluten-free breads often use another ingredient such as xanthum gum or guar gum.

gluten free

Gluten is not required to stay healthy, but many products such as whole-grain breads, provide other essential nutrients such as magnesium, folic acid and fiber. So if you choose gluten-free products, look for whole grains and high fiber. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.

The scoop on gluten-free eating

Consumer Reports also found more than a third of Americans thought not eating gluten would help them lose weight, when in fact it may help them gain weight. Individuals who lost weight on a gluten-free plan probably decreased their calorie intake by eliminating pasta and baked goods and did not replace them with gluten-free versions. Gluten-free versions of bagels, crackers and cereals often have more calories and often cost more, too.

The gluten-free fad has, however, benefitted people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. There are more gluten-free products in grocery stores and more menu items in restaurants. There’s even a “Find Me Gluten Free” app that shows restaurants with such foods.

gluten free

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, requires a gluten-free diet to stay healthy. About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease but almost 90 percent of them have not been diagnosed. This disease is often genetic so if a direct relative has celiac, you may have an increased risk. Individuals are also at increased risk if they have other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or autoimmune thyroid disease.

For a person with celiac disease, even the tiniest amount of gluten may cause intestinal damage, even if there are no overt symptoms. Avoiding cross-contamination is very important. For example, it’s important to use separate toasters for gluten-free bread and regular bread. Vitamin and nutritional supplements, lip balms and medications also need to be reviewed.

“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity” was coined in 2012 by researchers trying to understand the role of gluten in non-celiac conditions. It is believed about 6 percent of people have this sensitivity. It has been shown to also be an immune response, but does not show signs of damage to the intestine.

Symptoms of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can vary a lot. Some individuals with celiac disease have no symptoms while others can have abdominal bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gas, nausea, vomiting, weight -loss, anemia, bone or joint pain, hair loss, canker sores, infertility, seizures, headaches and skin rashes. Without a gluten-free diet, celiac disease can cause major malabsorption of nutrients which leads to malnutrition and an increased risk of other autoimmune disorders.

My concern is that when the gluten-free fad passes, people who really require this diet may get treated with indifference. The belief that a little gluten won’t hurt you is dangerous to those with celiac disease. But gluten is not a health hazard for everyone. Think of it like a nut allergy. If you have this allergy, you need to avoid nuts for your health. For everyone else, nuts can be healthy.

gluten free eating

Bonnie Brost is a licensed and registered dietitian in the Wellness Program at the Essentia Health in Duluth. Contact her at

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