Gluten-free products are more popular on grocery store shelves than ever before. These products are a blessing for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity who would normally have to avoid many foods to protect their health. But many people without these conditions are now taking part in the gluten-free trend, too. Could giving up gluten really help your health?
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It’s found in lots of bread products, from muffins to bagels, whole-wheat bread to rye bread. It’s even found in beer, which is made from barley.
Unless you are sensitive to gluten, it doesn’t have any negative effects on your health. Your body should be able to digest it normally and use the protein to fuel your bodily functions. Just because gluten isn’t hurting you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s helping you, but more often than not the foods containing the gluten do provide nutrients. “Nutritional benefits aren’t being provided by the gluten, but by the foods with gluten in them,” says Judy Mitnick, a registered dietitian with Bon Secours in Motion. “A lot of products that are whole-wheat that have a lot of fiber and other nutrients.”
Mitnick says someone who eliminates all gluten from their diet runs the risk of missing out on some essential nutrients.
WHO SHOULD EAT GLUTEN-FREE PRODUCTS?
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac wheat sensitivity, it’s important for you to avoid gluten and stick to gluten-free products. Eating gluten can harm your digestive health.
But Mitnick says she doesn’t doubt her clients who say that avoiding gluten makes them feel better since some people may be sensitive to gluten without a celiac disease diagnosis. “If they have cut way down on their gluten and they tell me they feel better, I’m not going to argue with that,” Mitnick says. If you are trying to lose weight, however, switching to gluten-free products is unlikely to help. Truthfully, the ingredients in gluten-free products aren’t much different than those in wheat products.
WHAT IS IN GLUTEN-FREE PRODUCTS?
Gluten-free products use other carbohydrates to replace wheat, barley or rye. Most gluten-free items use rice, potato or corn products to help give them a similar structure and texture as foods with gluten.
However, these substitute ingredients may not provide the fiber and nutrients that are present in whole-wheat products. “Sometimes gluten-free products give people the impression that they are healthier,” Mitnick says. “There’s nothing more healthy about it. There is no nutritional benefit to being gluten-free unless you know gluten causes bad reactions.” Gluten-free products often have the same number of carbohydrates as products with gluten, so they won’t fit into a low-carbohydrate diet. They also have a similar number of calories, but may contain more salt or sugar to improve flavor.
SHOULD I STOP EATING GLUTEN?
While what you eat is a personal decision, it’s important to know that going gluten-free is unlikely to benefit your health. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, only an estimated 1 percent of all Americans have diagnosed or undiagnosed celiac disease.
Gluten-free products are likely to have fewer nutritional benefits than whole-wheat products and often cost more money to purchase. Sticking to a gluten-free diet can also be challenging, causing unnecessary stress for people who have no problems digesting gluten.
If you are interested in a gluten-free diet because you think you may have gluten sensitivity, you should see your doctor before making diet changes. Diet changes can make it harder for your doctor to diagnose problems related to gluten. Instead, eat normally and write down everything you eat. Your doctor can use this information, along with other tests, to diagnose you with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, helping you decide if a gluten-free diet is right for you.