The gluten-free mantra is everywhere these days, from supermarket aisles to the best-sellers list. In fact, close to one-third of U.S. adults say they want to eliminate or reduce the amount of gluten they eat, according to research from The NPD Group, a global information company.
But whether or not you may feel better eating a gluten-free diet depends on your health and your dedication to finding nutritious substitutes for the foods you’re eliminating.
Coping with celiac disease
For certain medical conditions, it’s essential that you limit or exclude gluten. Celiac disease, which causes an immune system response to gluten, affects 1 in 141 people in the United States, according to a study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. Managing the disease means avoiding all foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and any hybrids of these grains.
But it’s important not to automatically self-diagnose celiac disease even if you have typical symptoms such as abdominal bloating, weight loss, chronic diarrhea or constipation, nausea or vomiting and skin rashes. Instead, share your symptoms with your physician and request a screening.
People with celiac disease have higher than normal levels of certain antibodies and your physician can do a blood test for this, followed up by a biopsy of the small intestine. But don’t go gluten-free before screening: If you’ve been on a gluten-free diet your blood tests may be negative for celiac disease even though you have it.
If you don’t have celiac disease and still feel bloated, gassy, foggy or headachy after you’ve eaten pasta or other gluten-rich food, you could be suffering from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance).
But there’s no one set of symptoms that suggests gluten sensitivity, nor are the symptoms necessarily always the same. Diarrhea, bloating, belching or acid reflux and even some skin rashes could be signs of gluten sensitivity.
Compared with tests for diagnosing celiac disease, determining whether you have gluten sensitivity isn’t always black and white. Your physician may suggest cutting out gluten-containing foods for two or three weeks, for example, to see if you feel better.
Healthy gluten-free options
For the sake of your health, going gluten-free shouldn’t mean switching to gluten-free cupcakes and corn chips in place of pretzels. Just because a product is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It can still be full of calories and sugar.
If you don’t replace the nutrients you’ve eliminated along with gluten-containing foods, you could be at risk for deficiencies of iron, calcium, dietary fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin D.
Instead, working with a registered dietitian can help you create a balanced gluten-free diet from the beginning. Start with some fresh fruit, veggies and lean proteins. Make home-cooked meals with gluten-free grains like buckwheat and quinoa. Nuts and legumes are also healthy alternatives to gluten-containing foods—and good sources of protein.
6 great gluten-free whole grains