Gluten can be a dietary irritant for many people, triggering uncomfortable stomach symptoms like cramping, bloating and diarrhea. Luckily, the gluten-free diet is fairly easy to follow, with many gluten-free alternatives available in supermarkets and a growing number of restaurants offering gluten-free meals for those who can’t digest them.
While gluten sensitivity can be uncomfortable, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can have a major impact on overall health. For people with celiac disease, even tiny traces of gluten caused by cross-contamination through shared equipment can trigger symptoms. Therefore, a gluten-free diet for celiac disease might be a stricter affair than for people with gluten sensitivity. Eating out in restaurants may come with requests that gluten-free dishes be prepared entirely separately using sterile equipment, and gluten-free products made in factories that process other gluten-containing products may be a no-go.
Against this background, are there any advantages to a gluten-free diet? Read on to find out everything you need to know about a gluten-free diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye or barley, which we use to make starchy foods such as pasta, bread or couscous.
dr Marion Sloan, GP and Chair of the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology in the UK, told Live Science: “Gluten is a protein in the seed. Avoiding wheat, rye or barley enables a gluten-free diet. However, it is difficult as gluten creeps into many foods during preparation and cooking as it is an inexpensive ingredient.”
That USDA guidance (opens in new tab) for 2020-2025 recommends focusing your meals on starchy foods, and while some starchy foods like rice or potatoes are naturally gluten-free, you may find that some common meals are off the table on the gluten-free diet. Most people can easily digest gluten and pass it through their bodies, but people with celiac disease, wheat allergies, or gluten intolerance find it difficult for their bodies to process it.
According to one study, celiac disease occurs in about 1% of the population lancet (opens in new tab) Diary. If you suspect you may have gluten intolerance, you should speak to your doctor and seek appropriate testing and treatment.
What is a gluten free diet?
A gluten-free diet removes or replaces gluten to help control symptoms of celiac disease, wheat allergy, or gluten sensitivity. Although there are many gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based foods, you may find that a successful gluten-free diet tends to rely more on meals based on other grains like rice and corn, or starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Gluten-free foods tend to be heavily processed to mimic products like bread and pasta. Therefore, it may be better (and cheaper) for overall health to find fresh alternatives and eat as many unprocessed foods as possible. Processing can also lead to contamination, and some gluten-free alternatives are made in factories that still process wheat products and therefore may contain traces of gluten. This is something that is generally stated on the label, similar factories that process nuts.
However, cutting out processed foods completely is not sustainable for most people. Foods like pasta and bread are convenient and easy to prepare, making them a good staple when you’re short on time to cook. If this is the case for you, carefully read the labels of foods that claim to be gluten-free to ensure there is no risk of cross-contamination.
dr Sloan tells Live Science that most food groups are okay to continue eating with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. “Rice, potatoes, and cornmeal made from corn do not contain gluten so would be fine.”
Benefits of a gluten-free diet
While most people experience no particular benefits from going gluten-free, for those removing gluten due to intolerance or celiac disease, going gluten-free can be life-changing. In people with celiac disease, gluten causes damage in the small intestine, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies due to malabsorption. By removing gluten from the diet, the condition can be managed and the gut given a chance to heal.
“Avoiding gluten stops the reaction in the gut lining, which means the gut stays healthy and can continue its job of absorbing all the nutrients from the food you’re digesting,” she says. “When the intestinal wall is inflamed from an ongoing allergic reaction, the wall becomes damaged and cannot be efficiently absorbed. This leads to a lack of absorption of many nutrients, but especially iron and folic acid.”
People with an IgE-mediated allergy, often a wheat allergy, may have different symptoms than those with celiac disease, but they will also find that avoiding wheat products helps control their symptoms. Although it is not gluten that they are sensitive to, they may find a gluten-free diet most effective for them.
For people with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, eating gluten doesn’t cause any real harm, but they may have trouble digesting it, leading to symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and gas. These symptoms can be very painful, so following a gluten-free diet can also help these individuals stay symptom-free and happy. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is more of an intolerance than a disease, so sensitivity to gluten may be lower. You may not need to avoid cross-contamination if you have this condition as it is not an allergy or disease and trace amounts may not trigger you.
What to eat and what to avoid on a gluten-free diet
What to avoid:
- Wheat products like bread, pasta, couscous, and cereal (note that some oatmeal may contain gluten due to cross-contamination)
- Rye products such as crackers and rye bread
- pastries and cakes
- cakes and cookies
What to eat:
- Potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes
- fruit and vegetables
- Grains like quinoa, rice and corn
- Legumes and legume products such as tofu
- Flour alternatives such as rice and potato flour
- Seeds and nuts in their natural, unprocessed form
- Fresh Eggs
- Fresh meat, poultry and fish (not marinated, breaded or breaded)
Gluten-free diet: risks and considerations
Many people who follow a gluten-free diet do not have a medically necessary dietary restriction and eat gluten-free as a fad.
A study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition (opens in new tab) Journal points out that unless you have celiac disease, IgE-mediated allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, sticking to a gluten-free diet is completely pointless.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s any benefit to going gluten-free unless you’re gluten intolerant,” adds the Registered Dietitian Jessica Fishman Levinson (opens in new tab). “A lot of people think that gluten-free foods are healthier — fewer calories, less fat, etc. — but that’s not always the case.”
dr Sloan also mentions the cost of consuming branded gluten-free products. “The gluten-free diet is potentially more expensive to the point where people say they can’t stick to that diet because it costs too much,” she says.
Another risk of following a gluten-free diet is not eating a healthy, balanced diet. With that in mind, it’s important to make sure you’re educated on how to eat gluten-free without over-relying on specialty products and processed foods.
“If gluten-containing products are replaced with highly processed gluten-free foods like pastries, energy bars, etc., you won’t lose weight and you may even gain weight, since many GF foods are higher in calories than their gluten-containing substitutes,” adds Levinson.
That Mediterranean cuisine can be a good start as it contains plenty of fresh fish, meat, fruits and vegetables that are naturally gluten free.
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