Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is gluten-free the new low-carb?

I've been seeing inklings of one of the latest diet crazes...gluten-free. Just a few months ago, Elizabeth Hasselbeck of The View published The G-Free Diet which is being presented as the next big thing in achieving optimal health and in treating conditions such as high cholesterol and ADD/ADHD. I'm sure the diet is catching on as I recently perused an online nutrition and health message board where I came across a poster who suggested gluten-free waffles as a "healthier" breakfast option. I cringed!  I really take issue with this new trend on several fronts.

First of all, it's a cRaZe -- aka, a fad, phase -- otherwise something that is going to come and go because it's really not what some people are making it out to be -- the panacea solution for achieving health. Ever hear the phrase, "If it sounds too good to be true..."? Yeah, that. There really are people who need to follow a gluten-free diet -- those with celiac disease or a sensitivity or allergy to gluten. However, going gluten-free before getting the proper diagnosis is ill-advised for a few reasons. In order to provide an accurate diagnosis for celiac disease, gluten actually needs to be present in the diet. If a person removes gluten from the diet, then the signs, symptoms and biological markers for the disease subside making confirmation difficult. To affirm a diagnosis of a gluten allergy or sensitivity, certain tests and special elimination diets or food challenges are recommended, and these tests can help determine the real culprit of someone's problems or rule certain things out with the guidance of a health professional.  And a formal diagnosis is important in order to ensure the appropriate steps are taken to manage the condition and prevent potential complications.  For celiac disease, the consequences are potentially serious including malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia and a slightly increased risk for intestinal and lymphatic cancer and osteoporosis. Also, an individual may run the risk of developing malnutrition by not incorporating appropriate gluten-free alternatives to ensure nutritional adequacy and from inadequate avoidance of gluten-containing foods and other products, such as medications, that contain hidden gluten.

Next, gluten-free does not equal healthy. Gluten-free products do not necessarily provide more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, healthful fats, etc. than their gluten-containing counterparts. Plus, gluten-free products can still incorporate plenty of added sugars, less healthful fats, sodium, and calories.  And don't even get me started on how I believe that one of the reasons the diet craze is taking off has something to do with the growth of this niche in the market and clever manufacturers/marketers adding fuel to the fire with more and more gluten-free offerings. Do we recall the low-carb thing?  It was EVERYWHERE, and what did it do for us? Hmmmm.... 

I've heard from some people who've gone gluten-free to manage autism, ADD/ADHD, and irritable bowel syndrome and others who are trying it out because they think it's more healthful. I've talked to people who claim that it's helped them feel better, and that may be true. At this point, there's not enough strong research-based evidence that suggests that a gluten-free diet does or does not help manage conditions such as these.  In some cases, the improvements may have a lot more to do with the shift in food intake from more processed foods to more minimally processed foods that happen to be naturally gluten-free (i.e., vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and lean proteins) than from the absence of gluten. I still believe it is important to receive a thorough medical assessment in order to assure that a proper diagnosis and treatment is obtained.  And I also think that professional guidance on meal planning is beneficial in order to ensure nutritional adequacy when eliminating gluten-containing foods from the diet. 

So, what's the bottom line? I'll go back to the beginning..."If it sounds too good to be true...".  While some individuals definitely benefit from following a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, most of us generally have no problem digesting, absorbing, and metabolizing gluten, and a gluten-free diet is not necessary nor is it more healthful. If someone hasn't been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity or allergy and believes s/he may have a problem with gluten, then consultation with a physician(s) for the appropriate diagnostic tests is advised. When following a gluten-free diet, it's best to seek the help of a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, with experience in providing the appropriate nutrition education and developing individualized meal plans and strategies to ensure nutritional balance, adequacy, and safety when going gluten-free. For sound nutrition information on a gluten-free diet, you may want to check out Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide by Shelly Case, a Registered Dietitian and expert in this area.  For recipes and cooking/baking tips, you may want to check out this blog at by Karina Allrich.

In good health...


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