Gluten-free diets – regimens in which people avoid wheat, rye and barley and foods that contain them – are in the news. But just because svelte celebrities and world-class athletes are gushing over gluten-free, does that mean it’s just a fad?
Not at all. While gluten – which is a naturally occurring protein that makes bread and pasta chewy – is harmless to most of us, it’s downright toxic to some people. For the roughly one percent of the population that is very sensitive to it, consumption of foods containing gluten causes a serious inflammation of and eventual damage to the lining of the small intestine. This phenomenon is known as celiac disease.
Typical symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, poor digestion and skin disorders, but can be much more far-reaching and less clear-cut. This is because celiac disease results in malabsorption of necessary nutrients and “leaky gut syndrome,” and has been implicated in a host of autoimmune diseases – and even in cancers of the digestive tract. Diagnosis can be difficult – the only accepted test requires that the patient has been consuming gluten and that the gut lining be inflamed. Long-term treatment consists of scrupulously avoiding any exposure to gluten – a common ingredient not just in breads, pasta and pizza, but in many, many prepared foods.
Most of the people who have adopted gluten-free diets in the last few years have not been diagnosed with celiac disease – but they say that they feel better and have more energy when they consume little or no gluten. Are they deluded?
Jenny Flora, M.S., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, says no.
“The definition of who should be on a gluten-free diet is changing rapidly,” she says. “It includes a large number of people who are somewhat sensitive, but who may not test positive for celiac disease. At this point, the gold standard is, ‘If you feel better when you avoid gluten, then you belong on a gluten-free diet.’ There’s nothing essential in gluten that you can’t get elsewhere, and if there’s one thing we know about health, it’s that less inflammation is good.”
Canyon Ranch physicians and nutritionists recommend that many guests who have auto-immune disorders – such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis – consider avoiding gluten, and adopt other aspects of an anti-inflammatory diet, including consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, rosemary and ginger.
“Such a diet will certainly do no harm – and it often helps, sometimes dramatically.”
Jenny has also seen guests with less well-defined concerns benefit from switching to a gluten-free diet.“We had an older gentleman recently who came to us feeling tired and listless, with poor concentration, low iron, and lots of odd neurological symptoms – tingling and numbness, things like that. We recommended that he try cutting out gluten and within a week he felt so much better that he complained bitterly about having to start eating it again so that his doctor could run the definitive test.”
Since people who are gluten intolerant but who continue to eat the standard Western diet could be at risk for very serious health complications, it is recommended that anyone who suspects that he or she may be intolerant actively seek diagnosis to rule out celiac disease.
And as for the sacrifice of giving up bread and pasta, and the challenge of reading all those labels, and of querying waiters in restaurants, Jenny is upbeat.
“There’s more awareness all the time, and with it more gluten-free products and choices every day – I was at a Diamondbacks baseball game recently where there was a gluten-free concession stand!
“And, honestly, the gluten-sensitive people I’ve worked with feel so much better avoiding gluten that for them the trade-off is more than worth it.”
Dining for Those with Special Dietary Concerns at Canyon Ranch
Ranch menus offer a delicious selection of gluten-free dishes – as well as dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan choices – at every meal. Our kitchens can even accommodate some kosher food requests (although our kitchens are not kosher).
Please contact our Food Development department with specific dietary requests or concerns before you arrive: 888-708-0769.