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Gluten-Free Diet: Is it a Friend or Foe?

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The popularity of gluten-free diet is undeniable in the recent years. In fact, there is 13.4 times growth in 5 years from US$ 1.56 billion in 2008 to US$ 12.4 billion in 2013.

Due to the rise of people testifying how gluten-free diet helped improve their energy, mental function, mood and weight including celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Ryan Gosling and Jenny McCarthy, people are now opting for a gluten-free diet.

In fact, grocery stores are now opening gluten-free shelves to get into the hype. Domino’s already added a gluten-free pizza on their menu. Dunkin’ Donuts developed a gluten-free donut.

The gluten-free diet is so popular that it landed the second highest spot on Time magazine’s list of top 10 food trends in 2012.

But what is gluten? Why is it bad for the health?

Gluten is a type of protein that can be found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). Gluten serves as the glue for baked products like bread, pastries, and pastas to keep its shape and to give chewy and elastic characteristics. This is not only present in foods, but it can also be found in lip balms, lipsticks as well as in stamp and envelope adhesives.

However, there are some people who get ill when they consume gluten such as people with celiac disease or people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition wherein gluten irritates the lining of the small intestine causing the immune system to attack the villi or the finger-like projections in the small intestine that help absorb nutrients from the food. The severity of this disease can lead to inflammation and gut leaks. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 1 in 141 people in the United State is affected by the disease.

On the other hand, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS is a form of gluten intolerance which causes symptoms such as bloating or gas, diarrhea, fatigue, headache and itchy skin rash. It is estimated that around 18 million people in the US have NCGS.

In these cases, gluten-free food is advisable to help heal the gut of celiac patients and to avoid symptoms of NCGS.

So how will one know that if you have celiac disease or NCGS?

One way to find out is the have a gluten-free diet for 2-4 weeks. At the same time, you can also take a simple blood test for confirmation. Once you feel that you are feeling better, try to gradually re-introduce gluten to your body. If the symptoms come back, it means that you have either NCGS or celiac disease.

Now, can gluten-free diet guarantees full recovery for celiac patients?

There was a study conducted on 241 celiac patients. They were asked to have a strict gluten-free diet to check small intestine mucosal recovery. It is concluded that there was only 34% recovery after 2 years and 66% recovery after 5 years.

A study published in The Journal of Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2009, 465 celiac patients did not have complete normalization of duodenal lesions despite adherence to a gluten-free diet. They still experienced severe gut inflammation even after taking GFD for 16 months.

In other words, completely removing gluten from your diet is not enough.

Now let’s go back people who are not diagnosed with celiac disease or NCGS, but still adhere to a gluten-free diet like the celebrities mentioned earlier. Is it safe for healthy people to have a gluten-deficient diet?

Non-celiac or NCGS patients who practiced GFD claim that they have better mood, more energy and fewer headaches, fatigue and other maladies. Some even said that GFD can fast-track weight loss.

There is no definite study or research to prove any of these claims. But what we can say is, when you eat healthy, you feel healthy. So if you opt for natural and unprocessed gluten-free food like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice, amaranth, sorghum, millet, corn (polenta) and teff, then you will have the essential nutrients to make you look and feel stronger.

GFD can contribute to weight loss, but it is not the main reason you lost that weight. You lost weight because you have limited food choices and you will turn to fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products. This kind of diet reduces total caloric intake, and people will lose weight naturally.

Another thing that you have to consider is that GFD for non-celiac and NCGS patients can cause serious health problems due to the lack of nutrients to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. This will lead to iron, calcium, fiber, folate, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin deficiency.

Also, if you are not careful with the type of gluten-free foods that you are consuming, you might end up taking in more sugar and fat than you would usually get from eating gluten itself.

For example, a regular pretzel contains 110 calories and 1 gram of fat. Its gluten-free alternative contains 140 calories and 6 grams of fat. If you continue to eat purely gluten-free which are mostly processed, this can contribute to obesity and diabetes.

So what can we learn from these studies?

  • Gluten is only harmful to NCGS and celiac patients.
  • Gluten-free diet alone is not enough to treat celiac disease. Celiac patients should choose easy-to-digest, low toxin, unprocessed foods that can’t be consumed by bad bacteria or doesn’t cause inflammation. At the same time, you have to ensure that your food has adequate nutrition and can improve intestinal permeability.
  • Instead of GFD, follow an SCD or Specific Carbohydrate Diet. According to Dr. Sidney V. Haas, SCD is a form of low-carb paleo/primal that removes common irritants that are present in the Gluten-Free Diet. This will help improve the small intestine and will help celiacs to properly absorb nutrients again.
  • Non-NCGS and non-celiac patients are not encouraged to follow GFD because this may lead to critical nutrient deficiency.
  • GFD is not directly involved in weight loss.
  • Choose natural gluten-free food. Eating processed gluten-free foods are more prone to obesity and diabetes.

So is gluten-free diet a friend or a foe? The answer is neither. It all depends on the medical status of the person and the kind of food they are consuming.  There is nothing wrong in promoting gluten-free food. This actually helps increase the awareness of NCGS and celiac disease and provides food variety to its patients. We just have to be careful in assessing the truth from the myth to avoid any serious health problems.

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