Is Gluten Bad For You?

Is Gluten Bad For You?

Gluten-free diets are  being touted as the  solution to everything from digestive troubles to  excess fat. But before you  hop on the bandwagon, read this

By Karen Ansel, R.D., Women’s Health
Chelsea Clinton’s wedding got a lot of press play a few months ago for  the  gorgeous locale, the esteemed guests, and her beautiful dress. But  what also  took the cake in terms of media coverage was, well, the cake.  The gluten-free  cake.

Just 10 years ago, barely anyone knew what the word gluten meant, let  alone  gave any thought to avoiding it. But now gluten-free diet menus are all the  rage, and high-profile stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow,  Rachel Weisz, and  Victoria Beckham have been linked to the gluten-free  lifestyle, which is said  to contribute to increased energy, thinner  thighs, and reduced belly bloat.

What It Is, Exactly Gluten is a protein found in the  grains wheat, barley, and rye. Most of  us unknowingly love it, because gluten  gives our favorite foods that  special touch: It makes pizza dough stretchy,  gives bread its spongy  texture, and is used to thicken sauces and soups.

Gluten-free eating has a basis in science, and it does help a genuine  health  problem. To people with a chronic digestive disorder called  celiac disease,  gluten is truly evil: Their bodies regard even a tiny  crumb of it as a  malicious invader and mount an immune response, says  Alessio Fasano, M.D.,  medical director of the University of Maryland  Center for Celiac Research in  Baltimore. Problem is, this immune  reaction ends up damaging the small  intestine, which causes both great  gastrointestinal distress and nutritional  deficiencies. If untreated,  these responses can then lead to intestinal cancers  as well as  complications such as infertility and osteoporosis.

Experts once thought celiac disease was a rare disorder, believed to  affect  one in every 10,000 people. But an Archives of Internal Medicine  study in 2003  suggests that celiac disease is far more prevalent than  anyone had suspected,  affecting one in 133 Americans. With increased  testing and awareness, more  people realized why they felt sick after  eating a piece of bread, and food  companies discovered a new market.

Now another problem is emerging, and experts are referring to it as   nonceliac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity can lead to similar  celiac  symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and bloating. But  unlike celiac,  sensitivity doesn’t damage the intestine. For years,  health professionals  didn’t believe nonceliac gluten sensitivity  existed, but experts are beginning  to acknowledge that it may affect as  many as 20 million Americans, says  Fasano.

The Health Hype Thanks to the increase in diagnosed  celiac and gluten sensitivity cases,  and the corresponding uptick in foods  marketed to sufferers,  “gluten-free diets have emerged from obscurity, and now  the pendulum has  swung completely in the other direction,” says Fasano. And  with this  popularity push, people have latched on to avoiding gluten as a  cure-all  for many conditions aside from celiac, including migraines,   fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. While some have found  relief, that  doesn’t mean a gluten free diet will work in all cases.

And then there’s the idea that a gluten-free existence is the ticket to   speedy weight loss. But, says Mark DeMeo, M.D., director of  gastroenterology  and nutrition at the Adult Celiac Disease Program at  Rush University Medical  Center in Chicago, “there’s nothing magical  about a gluten-free diet that’s  going to help you lose weight.” What’s  really at work: Gluten-free dining can  seriously limit the number of  foods you can eat. With fewer choices, you’re a  lot less likely to  overeat, says Shelley Case, R.D., author of Gluten-Free  Diet: A  Comprehensive Resource Guide and a medical advisory board member  for the  Celiac Disease Foundation.

But it can backfire too, because gluten-free doesn’t mean fat-free or  calorie-free.

“Without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more  fat  and sugar to make the product more palatable,” says Case. Consider  pretzels: A  serving of regular pretzels has about 110 calories and just  one gram of fat.  Swap them for gluten-free pretzels and you could get  140 caloriesand six grams  of fat.

Should You Go Gluten-Free? If you have celiac disease or  gluten sensitivity, the answer is easy:  Yes, you have to. But  if you just want  to give the diet a spin, know this: It’s a giant pain  in the butt. Giving up  gluten may sound as basic as cutting out bread or  eating less pasta, but this  isn’t just another version of the low-carb  craze. Because gluten makes foods  thick and tasty, it is added to  everything from salad dressing to soy sauce to  seasonings.

Besides the hassle, you can end up with serious nutritional  deficiencies.  “Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy, especially  when people yank  vitamin-enriched and wholegrain foods from their diets  and replace them with  gluten free brownies,” says Case. In fact,  research suggests that those who  forgo gluten may be more likely to miss  out on important nutrients such as  iron, B vitamins, and fiber.

This is where careful meal planning comes in, which may explain why some   people feel so good when they go G-free: They’re eating real food  instead of  ultraprocessed packaged fare. “If you skip the gluten-free  goodies and focus on  fruits, vegetables, lean protein, dairy, and gluten  free grains like amaranth  and quinoa, this can be a very healthy way of  eating,” says Marlisa Brown,  R.D., author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free. “But you can’t just wing  it.”

Six Signs of Gluten Sensitivity More than 2.5 million  people may have celiac disease, yet only an  estimated 150,000 have been  diagnosed. That’s because people can be  asymptomatic for years, and the  symptoms of celiac disease can also  overlap with other medical problems, so it  often confuses both patients  and doctors alike. That said, if you think you  might have a problem,  don’t ax gluten from your diet before being screened by a  specialist. If  you go off gluten entirely before having a test done, your  results may  come back negative even if you have the disease.

Celiac disease has hundreds of recognized symptoms, according to the  Celiac  Sprue Association, a nonprofit for those with the disease. Here  are some common  problems:

• Chronic diarrhea or constipation
• Abdominal pain and bloating
• Unexplained weight loss
• Anemia
• Fatigue
• Infertility