Vital Signs: Should you go gluten-free?

By Anna Kellaher
Columnist

Gluten has caused a surprising amount of controversy in recent years. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, it is found in grains, including wheat, barley and rye, and acts like a “glue” that keeps dough elastic.

For people with celiac disease, their bodies recognize gluten as a dangerous pathogen and launches an immune response. The response damages the small intestine, which overtime prevents the body from absorbing nutrients from food properly, according to The New York Times.

Gluten substitutes tend to lack necessary nutrients. (Flickr)

There is no medication or treatment for celiac disease. The only way to manage it is through a strict gluten-free diet.

According to Forbes, as of January of last year, around 3.1 million Americans followed a gluten free diet. However, not all of these consumers suffer from celiac disease. Seventy-two percent are classified as non-celiac disease people who avoid gluten.

The number of people following a gluten-free diet has tripled since 2009, while the prevalence of celiac disease remains the same. Many people consider themselves sensitive to gluten and report a link between eating gluten and experiencing symptoms including headaches, a foggy mind and joint pain, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

While there are no particular health benefits to a gluten-free diet, there is nothing wrong with avoiding gluten if it makes you feel healthier. However, there are potential downsides to be aware of as mentioned in The New York Times.

There is a limited number of commercially-prepared gluten-free products and, in order to replicate the texture and taste of their gluten-containing counterparts, these products often contain higher levels of saturated fat, sugar, sodium and lower levels of protein these ingredients, when eaten in high amounts, can be unhealthy substitutes for traditional wheat products.

Gluten-free products also tend to be lower in important vitamins and minerals like folic acid and iron because they do not contain enriched wheat. However, some gluten-free grains, including quinoa, rice and corn can be good sources of vitamins and minerals, as well as protein and fiber.

While it is important to feel good from what you eat, it is also important to ensure that you’re getting the necessary nutrients from your diet. Searching for healthier substitutes is one way to be conscious of what you’re eating and maintaining a balanced diet.