Is a Gluten Free Diet for Everyone? Should I Be On It?

Here's a topic that was suggested to me by my cousin, a speech therapist in Sacramento. She says " I'd like to hear your thoughts on the gluten free diet. The latest trend it seems-here in CA. And I keep hearing that some parents whose kids have autism are putting them on a gluten free diet."

A good question! It seems that a lot of people have decided that eating a gluten free diet is going to be the cure to all their problems. Or maybe just some of their problems! So you might wonder, should I follow a gluten free diet too? Here are the basics on eating gluten-free and if it's for you.

Much of my information comes from this article (from Eating Well). You should check it out for more detail and discussion on this issue. I think it's a great review!

What is Gluten?

According to wikipedia (the source of all things!), gluten is a protein composite that appears in foods processed from wheat and related species, including barley and rye. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often giving the final product a chewy texture.

Gluten really is the backbone of many grains. It's what gives bread it's fluffiness.It's in most pasta. It's also used in some imitation meat products. 

Who Should Follow a Gluten Free Diet?

Experts agree that gluten-free eating works wonders for one group of people: those who have celiac disease! People with celiac have an immune response to gluten that causes inflammation in the small intestine. This often results in breakdown of tissue in the small intestine.

Side effects of eating gluten for people with celiac are severe and include diarrhea, fatigue and failure to thrive (in children). The only management for people with celiac disease is to avoid gluten. This means they have to stay away from wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats (depending on the processing). Occasionally someone could have celiac and not have symptoms.

Experts estimate that of people who have celiac (about 1% of the US population), only 10% of those have been diagnosed. There is definitely a group of people who have the disease and haven't been diagnosed. But it's not a large percentage of the population.

Wheat allergies also exist, but are less severe and usually have symptoms like rash, or respiratory issues. For more on wheat allergies, check out this article

Who Shouldn't Follow a Gluten Free Diet?

Should we all be avoiding gluten? For most people, a gluten-free diet offers no benefits; in fact, it may even bring unwanted results, such as weight gain and nutritional deficiencies.

If you are celiac, YES - you must follow the diet. If someone with celiac does not follow the diet, risk for Lymphoma is increased (not to mention the unwanted GI side effects!)

However, if you simply think you have a sensitivity to gluten, it would be in your best interest to objectively measure whether you are sensitive or not. How? Track your symptoms in a log for 2 weeks while including gluten in your diet. Then do a simple 2 week or 1 month trial on the diet and continue your symptom log. Compare the two logs!

Autism, Weight Loss and other claims about a Gluten Free Diet

Why is it that celebrities think that they know more that people who have gone through many years of education in health? Am I running around writing books about acting and modeling? NO! It might be a soapbox for me, but it drives me CRAZY when people like Suzanne Summers or Jenny McCarthy promote things about health that have no evidence. Worse... they promote things that can actually be harmful, like "natural" hormones and avoiding immunizations. But, I digress. So back to the point!

In regards to the claim that a gluten free diet can help people with Autism, the bottom line is that so far, studies haven't convinced scientists of the diet's effectiveness. In addition, there's no evidence that a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss. There's not even a reasonable theory why it would. Gluten free products are usually higher in fat and more expensive.

The Bottom Line

For the average person, gluten does not provide a problem. There is no link of gluten to cancer risk unless you have celiac disease. For celiac's to reduce their risk of Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma, they need to completely avoid gluten to keep a healthy GI tract.

Some cancer survivors who have had chemo develop celiac, or gluten intolerance. The theory is that some types of chemo cause damage to the GI tract that makes the person more likely to develop the intolerance. So far, I've had a hard time finding evidence for this theory. I'll let you know when I find more!

Other than those with celiac, gluten containing foods can be a very healthy part of a plant based diet. Enjoy your grains, including wheat!

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- Julie

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Lanford MPH, RD, CSO, LDN published on June 30, 2011 4:13 PM.

Eat Your Veggies Day! was the previous entry in this blog.

In Season Summer Veggies: Recipes From Cooking Class is the next entry in this blog.

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