Kicking the Gluten Habit Going Gluten-Free is the Latest Diet Fad. But Is It Healthy?

A gluten-free cake was served at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Actresses Mary Louise Parker, Deborah Ann Woll, Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow have all stopped eating gluten. Every day brings more pop culture news about the gluten-free diet fad. It’s been touted as the latest health trend and a new way to lose weight.

gluten-free, credit: Andrea Nguyen, FlickrCC

Restaurant menus and supermarket aisles teem with gluten-free products—and sales of gluten-free foods are growing about 30% annually. From breakfast cereals to pasta, pizza and beer, there are now thousands of gluten-free alternatives ready for consumption (provided you’re willing to pay the higher prices). But are they healthier?

It depends. If you’re going gluten free to lose weight, you’ve missed the boat. Most gluten-free products are stripped of nutrients and made to last forever on supermarket shelves. Gluten-free desserts are loaded with sugar and fat. Like any other packaged snack food, these products won’t help you lose weight.

What’s So Bad about Gluten?

Gluten is a lectin-type protein found in wheat, rye and barley that makes dough elastic and baked goods chewy. Those with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune condition, must avoid all foods containing gluten. Those with gluten sensitivity also need to be cautious.

Currently, 1% of Americans—about three million—have celiac disease (CD). Another 5-6% may be gluten sensitive (GS). The numbers of people diagnosed with either the disease or the sensitivity are on the rise, although it’s not clear why. It could be due to the overabundance of wheat-based products (like pasta), new high-gluten wheat strains created to make fluffy Wonder Bread, or the way grain is processed. In any case, there is no medication for CD or GS; the only treatment is eliminating 100% of dietary gluten.

Many people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are unaware they have it, because the symptoms mimic other diseases. Before being diagnosed with celiac, Priscilla Pierce had medical tests for lead and mercury poisoning and Lyme disease—but the culprit turned out to be gluten. “I had stomachaches all of my life with strange sudden weight loss,” she says. “When I started the gluten-free diet, the symptoms reversed. No more constant diarrhea, and even my nervous twitching is gone.” When Tracie Neyman was eating gluten, she had seizures, ataxia (lack of muscle coordination that effects walking, swallowing and eye movements) and asthma. She has since been diagnosed with both celiac and wheat allergy, and is seizure-, ataxia- and asthma-free.

Eliminating Possibilities

Michelle Babb, a nutritionist and faculty practitioner at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, Washington, has extensive experience with food allergies and sensitivities. She explains that the best way to tell if gluten is responsible for abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, joint pain, depression, mood instability, rashes, acne or other problems is through an elimination diet. “I have patients eliminate gluten and other allergens for three weeks, then bring in one food at a time,” she said. “Many of the symptoms disappear; other chronic problems lessen. These patients sleep better and have more energy.” Babb’s website, eatplaybe.com, features gluten-free recipes.

Babb warns that a gluten-free diet should only be undertaken by those with real sensitivities, because it’s a diet that’s difficult and expensive to sustain in a balanced way. She says: “The gluten-free fad trivializes celiac, a serious medical condition. For those with celiac disease, the gluten-free diet is the only treatment available.” Just a little gluten sets off an autoimmune reaction in CD sufferers that flattens the villi lining the small intestine, resulting in malnutrition and leading to conditions like anemia, osteoporosis and infertility.

Growing Support for Gluten-Free

Although there’s limited medical evidence, there’s growing anecdotal evidence that eliminating gluten may also ease symptoms of other disorders. Rebecca Todd avoids gluten to control multiple scleriosis (MS) symptoms. The MS recovery diet (which avoids gluten, yeast and dairy) significantly improved her symptoms—particularly bladder problems. Todd says: “The recovery diet is a good starting point, but this is something that each person needs to learn how to personalize on their own. What works for me may not work for someone else.”

There is also growing support for a gluten-free, casein (dairy)-free (GFCF) diet to help improve language and social abilities for people on the autism spectrum. Tara J. Marshall, an adult with high-functioning autism, says: “Removing gluten eliminated a lot of the gastrointestinal problems I’d had throughout my life—chronic constipation and gut pain. I also started being able to read some basic body language and facial expression after several months of being gluten-, dairy- and soy-free.” Marshall works as a speech language pathology assistant, and has witnessed real improvements in some of the children with autism she’s taught who follow the GFCF diet. To date, there have been only a few randomized, controlled studies with mixed results but more research is underway.

Few people need to remove gluten from their diets entirely. But even if you’re not one of them, it’s advisable to expand beyond traditional breads and pastas with healthy, fiber-rich grains like quinoa, buckwheat and millet. And remember: Vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts are all naturally gluten-free.

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