Healthy Eating for Gluten Free Living

Written by Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N on September 21, 2010

You may have heard about what seems to be the latest diet craze—going gluten-free. Should you be shunning gluten from your diet? Not so fast. Even though gluten-free products are everywhere, a gluten-free diet is not for everyone and should only be followed with proper guidance.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, which are used in a variety of foods: Bread, cereals, bagels, cakes, cookies, pasta, pizza crust, and beer all contain some amount of gluten. Gluten can also be found in anything that uses flour, such as breading on meats and even in hidden ingredients such as malt flavoring and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. 

Corn, potatoes, and rice are gluten-free, as are other whole grains such as quinoa, millet, amaranth, and teff. Breads and pastas can be made from these grains instead of wheat and barley-based flours. Oats are gluten-free but are usually contaminated by gluten because they are often grown in rotation with other gluten-containing crops. Look for a brand of oats that specifically states that they are gluten-free.

Who Needs a Gluten-free Diet?

A gluten-free diet is appropriate for someone who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a chronic, inherited autoimmune disorder. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, it causes damage to the villi in the intestine (small, fingerlike projections that help in food absorption), causing malabsorption of nutrients. Consequences both short- and long-term can include but are not limited to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, diarrhea, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, weight loss, joint pain, bruising depression, canker sores, and infertility. A person with celiac disease can experience one or none of these symptoms after eating a food product that contains gluten. The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet.

If you suspect that you have celiac disease, do not put yourself on a gluten-free diet without being tested first. If you remove gluten from your diet and then get tested you may receive a false negative result and a misdiagnoses.

Not a Weight-Loss Diet

Removing gluten from your diet if you do not have celiac disease is not beneficial. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in fat and calories than the wheat-containing varieties. In addition, many gluten-free products are not enriched or fortified with the same vitamins and minerals that are found in other grain products. 

A gluten-free diet can be difficult to adhere to when first learning about it. For that reason, it may be helpful to consult with a registered dietitian or doctor who specializes in food allergies and intolerances. He or she will be able to assess your nutritional status and advise you on a healthful meal plan to nourish you while also preventing side effects. 

A gluten-free multivitamin is recommended for many people with celiac disease because of the damage to the intestines and the decreased ability of the body to absorb certain nutrients. As always, check with your physician for advice on what supplements are safe for you to take.

With the proper education about gluten-free diets, a person with celiac disease can find the relief they need to improve their health.

Learn more about food intolerances and food allergies by visiting the Food Allergy Learning Center.

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