The Truth About Gluten

By: Dianna Yanchis, BSc (Nutrition)

Reviewed by Andrea Miller MHSc, RD

“Going gluten free” appears to be a diet trend that has grown in popularity over the past several years. Grocery stores devote entire aisles to gluten free foods and celebrities and fitness enthusiasts promote its’ “health benefits.”  Health claims that are associated with a gluten-free diet include weight loss, a reduction in bloating, improving skin tone, increasing alertness, and many others. Is a gluten free diet as beneficial as it is made out to be? What exactly is a gluten-free diet?

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Gluten is a type of protein that is found in grains, including wheat, barley and rye. Gluten functions to give these foods shape and elasticity. Gluten is composed of two different proteins: gliadin and glutenin. It can be found in breads, soups, pasta, cereals, sauces, baked foods, some oats (if the are not certified gluten free) and even salad dressings.
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Current research suggests that there is no evidence that gluten is bad or unhealthy for the general population. The benefits of a gluten-free diet are only be seen in individuals who have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease. These individuals produce an abnormal immune response when breaking down gluten during digestion. This immune response can damage intestines, which prevents the absorption of many essential nutrients. Symptoms associated with this response include bloating, cramping, diarrhea, skin rashes, and anemia.

In recent years, many people without a gluten intolerance or celiac disease are following a gluten free diet, as it has become a popular ‘trend’. One of the important and of unrealized challenges with a gluten free diet is that when gluten is removed from the diet, many other nutrients are also lost, as a result of removing a wide range of food choices. Nutrients that can become depleted, if not replaced by an alternate food source include, B vitamins, iron and fibre. Although gluten itself does not offer nutritional benefits, the whole grains that contain gluten, do. They are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Many gluten-free alternatives are processed foods that are low in fiber and protein and high in sugar and sodium.

All things considered, a gluten-free diet may actually cause more harm than good for those without celiac disease or any other medically prescribed reason for eliminating gluten from the diet. It is important to consult a Registered Dietitian for personalized nutrition advice and information.

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For more information about celiac disease and a gluten free diet, check out the Canadian Celiac Association or this resource.

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