“Gluten-free” food labels are everywhere these days—a big change from not too long ago, when public awareness of this protein (found in wheat, barley and rye) was far less than it is today. Hearing all the buzz about it, and perhaps even knowing more and more people who have adopted a gluten-free diet for one reason or another, may leave you wondering if this diet change is for you, too.
Popular diet trends can be tempting. But the truth is that most people can eat these grains without any concern—a good thing, since some foods containing them are important sources of fiber, B vitamins and several minerals. Whether or not you need to consider a gluten-free diet primarily comes down to what’s going on in your immune system.
Gluten and Your Immune System
Everything you eat gets “interpreted” by your immune system, 60 to 70 percent of which resides in your intestinal tract. Is this food safe for her, or is it dangerous? If the verdict is the latter, it responds as if it’s being attacked and triggers inflammation. This can happen with a pathogen like bacteria. But in some, it can happen in response to something that isn’t harmful—like gluten.
Those with the more severe reaction have celiac disease—a now well-known gastrointestinal issue in which villi (small, comb-like structures in the small intestine, which help get nutrients into the bloodstream) are destroyed by the immune system’s allergic response to gluten. This may cause a range of mild to more severe symptoms, including diarrhea, cramping, bloating, headaches, fatigue, rashes and joint pain. If unmanaged, the disease can also contribute to other health issues, like osteoporosis and anemia.
Others have responses to gluten that can cause the same symptoms, but without the damage to the intestine. Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be able to tolerate gluten in small amounts or not at all. Moderating or even eliminating gluten may be necessary to keep these hyper-immune reactions (and resulting discomfort) from occurring.
These are the top reasons a gluten-free diet is recommended, but your doctor may also suggest one if he or she suspects or is treating you for any number of other autoimmune conditions, such as alopecia areata or thyroid disease. (There’s a lot about reactions to gluten that is still being researched.)
Making the Change
Clearly, if you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or intolerance, it’s important to follow your health care providers’ advice to either eliminate or reduce gluten (and secure proper nutrition through other adjustments in your diet). A nutritionist plays a key role in your care, as he or she can make recommendations for your specific case and help you develop a daily meal plan.
If you haven’t been diagnosed, but experience similar symptoms, speak to your doctor before cutting out gluten on your own. He or she can run tests to identify if you have antibodies that are indicative of a gluten reaction, or help determine if something else could be causing your issues. Since test results can still be normal even if you are sensitive to gluten, your doctor may recommend an elimination diet to help determine if the protein is truly the offender.
You might still be interested in a gluten-free diet despite not having these issues; some people anecdotally report that cutting out gluten gives them other health benefits, such as increased energy. Again, it’s best to consult your health care team before making such a switch. Since grains deliver important nutrients and play a part in aiding digestion and elimination, among other things, you’ll want to ensure that the foods you are eating adequately nourish you. Eliminating gluten-containing foods without a doctor’s OK and a nutritionist’s guidance may also negatively affect other health concerns you may have.
“Unfortunately, gluten-free products do tend to be lower in fiber, higher in sugar and higher in fat,” says Chrissy Wellington-Garner, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., C.P.T., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “Be cautious when choosing gluten-free items to ensure that you’re still taking in appropriate nutrition.”
Cutting out gluten doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy food anymore. Quite the contrary! Though gluten-free foods do tend to be more expensive, the market of options has exploded (and nature does a fine job of providing us with plenty of options on its own, too). Additionally, we’re seeing more and more use of product ingredients that offer you more fiber and nutrients than counterparts of the past, which were typically made with white rice or the starch portion acceptable grains.
Again, a nutritionist is the best person to help you devise a diet that fits both your preferences and nutritional needs. You can stay satisfied—and meet the recommended goal of getting half of your carbohydrates from whole grains—by choosing foods wisely.
You may also want to try some of our Canyon Ranch gluten-free recipes, which are all designed to pass not just this important ingredient test, but arguably the most important test of any dining room—the taste test: