May is Celiac Awareness Month and thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the celiac disease and give my 2 cents on ‘gluten-free” trend. Gluten is basically a protein found mostly in wheat, rye barley, triticale and is responsible for the shape/structure/elasticity of baked goods. I can’t remember when the gluten-free trend started but I can tell you that is a HUGE market. Personally, I feel like more people are following the trend blindly because the next door neighbor lost weight following a gluten-free diet, or certain celebrity is endorsing it for whatever reason, or because you read somewhere how gluten is the devil behind your health issues. If any of these feels vaguely familiar, I urge you to continue reading because gluten-free diet is a MUST for anyone with celiac disease/gluten-intolerance or sensitivity…Rest of us needs to stop the gluten-free trend because you are unnecessarily spending more money on gluten-free foods, probably missing out of nutrients, or even eating more junk than you realize because gluten-free donut is still a donut. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where eating gluten will cause a damage to the small intestine. Basically anytime people with celiac disease eats food with gluten, their immune system thinks it is foreign and responds by attacking villi – a tiny, fingerlike projections on the inner lining of the small intestine. Villi is responsible for absorbing nutrients from food and passing the nutrients through the walls of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. In order to prevent inflammation/irritation of the villi, people with celiac disease MUST stick to gluten-free diet otherwise, villi will progressively get damaged making it difficult to absorb nutrients which can put individuals at risk of being malnourished. There are individuals who are gluten-sensitive/intolerant (commonly called non- celiac gluten sensitivity) which means they have symptoms similar to those seen in celiac disease but it is not an autoimmune or genetic disorder. When they eat gluten, it does not cause damage to the small intestine but will still produce symptoms as seen in celiac disease like mental fatigue (“brain fog”), lack of energy or lethargy, gas, bloating, abdominal pain or cramps, diarrhea and even constipation.
If you are genetically predisposed to celiac disease or have been experiencing symptoms as listed above, please go to a doctor rather than self-diagnosing celiac disease/non-celiac gluten sensitivity. You may or may not have celiac disease/non-celiac gluten sensitivity but you definitely don’t want to treat symptoms based on what you read on the internet because there could be something else going on that you may not have thought about…basically stop wasting your time on Web MD and make an appointment with your doctor. I have had several people tell me that they are already following or plan on trying gluten-free diet for weight loss, better skin, more energy, restful sleep etc and want my opinion about it. I respect everyone’s decision on their dietary habits/restrictions but being a dietitian, sometimes I am not sure what to do – Should I go ahead and give you my professional advice since you asked or just keep quiet because I have no clue about your medical history or simply applaud you for going on a gluten-free diet which is apparently helping you lose weight. I have done all of the above based on the situation/person but for the purpose of this post today, let’s have a heart to heart about gluten-free trend and why it needs to stop.
- When I say gluten-free trend, I mean trend/fad/what cool kids do and not a treatment because gluten-free diet is the ONLY treatment for someone with celiac disease/non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It is their way of living so please respect and support that.
- Sorry to burst your bubble but you are probably losing weight and feeling better about energy,sleep,skin etc because a lot of products that contain gluten can be higher in calories, fats, carbs (think pizza, pasta, donuts, pastries) and eliminating them from your life may have helped you with weight loss. If you avoided all these foods or replaced them with naturally gluten-free foods such as fruits, vegetables then you are probably getting more nutrients that was previously lacking, thus feeling better.
- Gluten-free DOES NOT necessarily mean healthy but the $25 billion industry has somehow tricked people into believing that. I have seen naturally gluten-free products with gluten-free label just to grab your attention…don’t buy into fancy labels!!
- You are probably missing out on nutrients trying to be gluten-free without even realizing it. Unlike wheat flour, other gluten-free flours are not enriched with vitamin B, folic acid, iron so be mindful of that..and same goes for fiber. Since majority of fiber comes from grain-based foods, increase your intake of fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts to make sure you are getting enough fiber.
- Over or under eating is possible if you blindly jump into gluten-free band wagon. Like I said earlier, just because something says ‘gluten-free’ it does not mean healthy/calorie-free..so lay off that gluten-free chips/crackers/candies. On the other hand, gluten-free diet could be another excuse for an eating disorder/restrictive eating behavior. Here is a great story by a RD who talks about her experience on gluten-free diet and eating disorder..makes a lot of sense.
If hope this post will help shed some light on celiac disease, gluten-free diet, and it’s significance. If you are keen on following gluten-free diet for whatever reason, do your research, and see if it is truly benefiting you rather than just a placebo effect.
A gluten-free diet is an answer for celiac disease.
A gluten-free diet is a question for the rest of us.
-Mark Borigini, MD
If you are passionate about celiac disease, I highly encourage you to read Rebecca’s post on “The #1 Thing You Need to Know About Celiac Disease”.