Gluten-Free Diets: Good or Bad?

by in Gluten-Free, October 14, 2010

quinoa

Seems like everyone is buzzing about gluten-free diets. New products and diet books are flooding the marketplace and celebrities are swearing by their anti-gluten lifestyles. So what’s this really all about? Does going gluten-free hold the key to better health and weight-loss success, even if you’re not gluten-intolerant? Get the facts.

The Basics
Gluten is a protein found in foods derived from wheat, barley and rye. This includes everything from cookies to condiments and even beverages like beer.

Celiac disease (a.k.a. celiac sprue) is an autoimmune disorder where the digestive system becomes damaged while attempting to digest gluten. If left untreated, it can cause nutrient deficiencies, osteoporosis, intestinal cancers and even infertility.  These days, doctors are testing patients for Celiac more often, so thankfully more people are finding they have the condition early on. Those that do test positive can find relief from very uncomfortable digestive symptoms by cutting gluten out of their diet.

The good news? Many healthy foods are naturally gluten free! Fruits, vegetables, dairy, seafood, lean meats, poultry and grains and starches like rice, potatoes quinoa (pictured above), corn, tapioca, buckwheat are all fair game. Oats remain controversial — they don’t contain gluten, but are often contaminated with wheat during growing or processing, so many experts recommend against eating them. Be on the lookout for oat products that are labeled “gluten-free.”

For a comprehensive list of gluten-containing foods, visit the Mayo Clinic website.

Saying So Long to Gluten
Early on, changing your eating habits to avoid gluten can be extremely difficult. Once you get the hang of it, it can be fun and even simple to whip up gluten-free fare.

Struggling with the “what–to-eat” factor has created the misconception that going gluten-free is a sensible weight loss strategy. Drastically changing your diet in any way can lead to eating less calories and voila, weight loss! Since many folks tend to overdo portions of starchy carbs and baked goods, giving gluten the boot becomes a crash course in portion control.

On the flip side, gluten-free versions of baked goods can be higher in calories and fat than their gluten-packed counterparts, so label reading is a MUST!

Nutrient Needs
The major concern with going gluten-free is what else your diet might be missing out on. High-gluten foods like pasta and bread are sources of fiber and precious B-vitamins that your body relies on for energy and nervous system function. Boosting your intake of gluten-free whole grains (like quinoa and brown rice), legumes, fruits and vegetables can help make up the difference.

Bottom Line: Gluten-free diets are a must for those that have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, but shouldn’t be used as a quick fix for weight loss. If you decide to go gluten-free, do your homework and make sure you’re eating a wide variety of healthy foods and meeting all your nutrient needs.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »

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