Gluten: Friend or Foe? Get in the Know

Health trends always come and go, but the gluten-free craze has stuck around for quite some time now. Experts predict that gluten-free food sales will exceed 16 billion dollars by 2016. Talk about a lot of dough! In spirit of our Fox News interview last week where we discussed the controversial gluten-free fad (and shared one of our own client's journey) we think you deserve a little fact versus fiction from your trusted dietitians when it comes to the breadbasket.

Let’s first define gluten so we’re all on the same page. If we've learned anything from Jimmy Kimmel’s “what is gluten”  video last year, it’s that square one is the best place to start. Gluten is a protein commonly found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley. It provides many starch products with shape, texture, and elasticity. So, there you have it. Gluten is not some people-eating-cancer-causing bacterium that’s destroying humanity one bagel at a time. It’s just a protein, and it’s been the foundation of the Western diet since the start of civilization.

So why now does gluten have such a bad rep?

Celiac disease (CD), widely known as a gluten allergy, is an autoimmune condition that occurs in response to gluten consumption and can ultimately destroy the small intestine if not properly handled. This is a very real condition that should not be taken lightly. A blood test is used to screen for and an intestinal biopsy can further diagnose CD. The only treatment is strict, lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. For some people, the allergy is so severe that using a utensil that had previously come in contact with gluten can leave them with painful GI symptoms for days.

In the early 1990’s CD was under-diagnosed. Now, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 1% of the population suffer from CD. This is largely why gluten has made headline news so often in the last decade.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) seems to be the condition that has people most confused. People with NCGS test negative for CD; however, they experience painful GI symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods, similar to those of people who have CD. Furthermore, many people find that their symptoms subside when gluten is removed from their diets. Hmmm.

While scientists are working to configure an explanation for these people, research has provided some interesting theories. Some recent studies have shown that these GI symptoms may be due to other components found in carbohydrates. These other components referred to by their acronym “FODMAPS”  (which we will discuss in a future blog post) draw water into the intestine and can cause aggravating GI symptoms. In many instances gluten may not be the culprit after all.

Are there health risks to going gluten-free?

There are no major health risks to going gluten-free. However a common misconception about gluten-free food is that it is healthier than gluten-containing foods. This is completely false and in fact, processed gluten-free foods are more likely to lack certain vitamins and fiber than gluten-containing foods. We are all in favor of a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice. Gluten free cupcakes and pizza? Not so much.

Gluten-free food tends to be expensive. If you’re not certain that gluten is the reason for your GI discomfort, you may want to think outside the box.

What should I do now?

If you have CD, you already know that you are GF4L (gluten-free for life). If you think you have NCGS and you feel better on a gluten-free diet, then keep it up! If going gluten-free hasn't helped your GI symptoms, then perhaps it’s time to take a closer look into your diet. We suggest using a food journal to help you recognize triggers. The triggers may be,  but are certainly not limited to, portion size, stress, or specific foods. 

A nutrition plan is not "one-size-fits-all." We're simply here to educate you. Now that you're in on the gluten gossip, the choice is yours!