The question: I don't have celiac disease but am thinking about going on a gluten-free diet. Good idea?
The answer: Gluten-free diets are certainly on the rise. In part because gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is on the rise. But they're also becoming fashionable as celebrities and professional athletes are dropping gluten from their diets. A gluten-free diet is often hyped as a way to increase energy, lose weight or deal with certain health problems.
The truth is, though, that a gluten-free diet isn't necessarily a healthy one if you don't need to be on it.
So who does need a gluten-free diet? For starters, it's a necessity for people with celiac disease. Following a gluten-free diet is the only way to treat the condition. People with celiac disease avoid obvious sources of gluten such as bread and pasta but they also eliminate gluten hidden in foods such deli meats, salad dressings and condiments.
It's estimated that 1 in 133 Canadians have celiac disease. It's a lifelong, genetically based disorder that occurs when gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley – triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine interfering with the absorption of nutrients.
Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss and, in children, delayed growth. But most people have symptoms that are more subtle, such as bloating, excess gas or fatigue.
People who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity will also benefit from a gluten-free diet. These people test negative for celiac disease but react poorly to gluten and may report abdominal pain, headaches and fatigue.
There's no evidence, however, that following a gluten-free diet will promote weight loss or offer any health benefit beyond helping gluten-sensitive people.
If you decide to drop gluten from your diet, be sure to include gluten-free whole grains such as brown and wild rice, quinoa and millet to help you get fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Don't fall into the trap of filling up on gluten-free breads, bagels, cookies and snack foods. Many of these foods are refined and have been stripped of fibre and nutrients. And unlike wheat flour, these products are not fortified with vitamins and minerals. Many are also higher in carbohydrates and sodium.
Gluten-free diets tend to be low in fibre because wheat bran – a major source of fibre – is off limits. To add fibre, include two tablespoons of ground flaxseed in your daily diet. Legumes and lentils are also high-fibre foods appropriate for a gluten-free diet. Eating at least three fruit servings and four vegetable servings every day will boost your fibre intake, too.
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