Is Going Gluten-Free Really Healthier?

Only a decade ago, celiac disease was thought to be a rare disorder that mainly affected European populations. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes the finger-like extensions (villi) of the small intestine to flatten when a person with celiac eats gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in some grains, like wheat, rye and barley.

In people with celiac disease, eating anything with gluten can cause symptoms like bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhea, anemia and other nutrient deficiencies. Some people with celiac disease also develop a rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. There is no cure for celiac disease; the only “prescription” is a lifelong gluten-free diet, which allows the intestine to heal and provides symptom relief.

Now, it is known that about 1 in 133 people in North America have celiac disease, and the multi-billion dollar gluten free market is one of the fastest growing sectors in the food industry. Niche companies, like Edmonton’s Kinnikinnick foods, and big manufacturers like Kellogg’s – who recently introduced Gluten-Free Brown Rice Krispies – are now bringing more gluten-free products to grocery store shelves.

Restaurants of all sizes are catering to the gluten-free crowd as well – Boston Pizza offers gluten-free pizza, while the Cheesecake Café and Olive Garden both have special gluten-free menus. In Calgary, Lakeview Bakery has been known for its gluten-free treats, while Without Papers Pizza can make your pizza on a locally-produced gluten-free crust made with brown rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca starch and xanthan gum.

How is it possible that less than 1% of the population can fuel such a huge industry? The simple answer is, it’s not. There are some people who are sensitive to gluten and experience gastrointestinal symptoms despite not having celiac disease, but even more are choosing to go gluten-free because it’s “healthier”.

Gluten is a type of protein found in some grains, like wheat, rye and barley.

What makes gluten so “bad” for you?

Some believe that since there are so many people with gluten intolerance, gluten is difficult for everyone to digest and causes inflammation in the body, which in turn leads to poor digestion, fatigue, weight gain and other ailments.

Celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon – Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View, who has celiac disease, believes that “even people with no health issues have a great deal to gain by giving up gluten.” Tennis player Novak Djokovic, football player Drew Brees and cyclist Tom Danielson all credit their gluten-free diets for their athletic performance.

There is very little scientific evidence to back up these claims. Nearly all of the studies on gluten and the gluten-free diet have involved subjects with a co-existing condition. Whether it is celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) or autism, the latest scientific evidence shows no benefit and it is inappropriate to extend these results to a healthy population. It is similar to saying, “Some people have peanut allergies, therefore peanuts are bad for everyone,” which is not the case.

Some people do experience weight loss or improved energy on a gluten-free diet, but that is more likely because they are inadvertently eating fewer processed and refined foods, cooking more from scratch and choosing more fruits and vegetables, not because they have eliminated some magical fat-storing substance from their diet. In fact, a recent study found that people with celiac disease gained weight once they were treated with the gluten-free diet – most likely because they were finally absorbing what they were eating.

What about the improvements in digestion, fitness or mental clarity? Again, there is virtually no research that looks at the effect of the gluten-free diet on these claims, and you can’t ignore the placebo effect – people reporting that they feel better just because they made a change in their diet, as opposed to a benefit from the diet itself.

Simply replacing foods like bread, cookies and pizza with their gluten-free counterparts can in fact do more harm than good. Some people see the “gluten-free” label as a license to overindulge on these products when they don’t really provide any special benefit. Gluten-free substitutes often have the same amount, if not more, calories compared to the gluten-containing originals. Gluten usually brings elasticity, springiness and chewiness to baked goods, and some manufacturers add more sugar and fat to gluten-free products to make up for the difference in texture. A gluten-free diet can also be lower in fibre as there are very few whole grain gluten-free products available.

Can a gluten-free diet be healthy?

Of course! Vegetables, fruit, lean meats, legumes and dairy products are all naturally gluten-free. Gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains, like buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth are becoming more popular and more accessible. Healthy gluten-free recipes are becoming readily available in cookbooks and online. Planning a healthy, gluten-free diet involves the same principles as any eating pattern – choose mostly whole, minimally processed foods, including foods from all four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide.

Shauna James Ahern, better known as Gluten-Free Girl, frequently notes on her blog (www.glutenfreegirl.com) that being diagnosed with celiac actually helped her to expand her palate and enjoy a wider variety of healthy foods.

However, maintaining a balanced, gluten-free diet requires a lot of work label reading, recipe altering and meal planning. It is also known to be one of the most expensive eating patterns, and some gluten-free foods may be difficult to find. While more and more restaurants, bakeries and cafés are bringing in gluten-free options, you still have to be choosy in terms of where and what you can eat. If you are otherwise healthy, why impose these restrictions on yourself when the benefits may be minimal?

If you do insist on going gluten-free, or if you must go gluten-free because of celiac disease or another sensitivity, it is best to consult a dietitian to help you identify foods that you can and cannot eat, and to make sure that you are meeting all your nutrition needs.

You can also refer to the Canadian Celiac Association (www.celiac.ca), which has great gluten-free resources, or the book “Gluten-Free Diet” by Shelley Case, RD (www.glutenfreediet.ca)

About Vincci Tsui

Vincci is a Registered Dietitian with. Vincci is also a long-time member of World Health and can often be found taking Muay Thai at World Health Richmond. You can tweet her @VincciT.

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