In the last few years, gluten-free products have been popping up all over the place. Many people have since made the assumption that, if something is labeled “gluten-free,” it automatically means it’s healthier than something that contains gluten. After all, gluten-free foods regularly earn endorsements from athletes and celebrities, so they must be better for us, right? In reality, though, the response to questions about the health value of gluten-free foods is often not clear, often steering closer to “it depends” than to unanimous reassurance. So, what is the truth behind all those products and advertisements?
If you don’t know, gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives breads elasticity and structure. It is not harmful and has been around as long as people have been making breads. Gluten also can turn up in unexpected places such as sauces and food additives. Gluten-free diets always are recommended for patients with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that prevents them from being able to digest gluten as it can damage their intestinal lining and can cause nutrient deficiencies. About one percent of the nation’s population lives with celiac disease. Another 30 percent of people in the United States struggle with gluten intolerance, which leads to abdominal distress or fatigue when the protein is consumed.
Blount Memorial Hospital registered dietitian Heather Pierce says the jury is still out on gluten-free diets as a whole. “The diet is still being researched,” she said. “Results have been promising, but no definitive protocols are in place yet for treatment of other autoimmune disorders such as autism, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis,” she added.
Pierce says the idea that gluten-free diets are helpful for weight loss is not necessarily true. “It depends on what you replace products that do contain gluten with,” she said. “If the diet has fewer calories, then, of course, it can cause weight loss. Overall, the best diet for weight loss is one that you will adhere to, and this one isn’t easy or cheap,” she explained. “Actually, those with celiac disease typically gain weight while on a gluten-free diet because they are absorbing nutrients better,” Pierce said. “Some research suggests that those following gluten-free diets have less healthy bacteria and higher levels of bad bacteria in their systems, which can be bad for the immune system,” she added.
The overall health benefits of a gluten-free diet are up in the air, as well. “A gluten-free diet can be very healthy if done correctly, but not if you rely on processed gluten-free foods,” Pierce said. “Many of the gluten-free processed foods must use rice or potatoes in combination with other low fiber grains, making them higher in carbohydrates. Higher carbohydrates and lower fiber do not lead to a recipe for weight loss. But, if a diet contains lean meats, gluten-free whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, then it can be very healthy,” she explained
Pierce says sticking to a healthy gluten-free diet also takes some work. “It does take effort and proper food preparation to get this diet right,” she said. “Some examples of gluten-free whole grains include quinoa, teff, amaranth and sorghum. These are unfamiliar to most, and it takes some research to properly prepare them, but, luckily, this information is easy to access through many cookbook websites. If you’re experiencing symptoms such as arthritis or gastrointestinal issues and you think they could be related to gluten, you can try a gluten-free diet for up to four weeks to see if there are improvements,” she explained.
“I would recommend seeing a doctor before self-diagnosing or making a drastic change to your diet,” Pierce said. “This is the healthiest diet for those with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, but it could be unnecessary or not recommended for others,” she added.