One of the commonly asked questions from my clients, readers and viewers is: “should I go gluten-free?” The answer might surprise you.
Currently, 1 percent of the U.S. population holds a diagnosis for Celiac Disease and an estimated 6 percent have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. These individuals are advised to avoid gluten for medical purposes. As for the other 93 percent of us – chances are gluten is perfectly safe. In fact, avoiding gluten-containing foods may put you at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
What is gluten exactly?
The word “gluten” has been demonized by the media and I am here to set the record straight. Gluten is simply a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It gives bread dough elasticity and the ability to rise during baking. Besides certain bread and grains, it can be found in foods and products that are lesser known to us like certain candies, soy sauce, beer and even makeup.
Who needs to avoid gluten?
There is a subset of the population who need to avoid gluten for medical purposes: those with Celiac Disease or a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. When individuals with Celiac Disease consume gluten, their body mounts an immune response that results in damage to the small intestine where most nutrient absorption occurs. As a result, this can lead to long-term nutrient deficiencies including iron and calcium, which can put them at risk for anemia and osteoporosis, respectively.
Some individuals have not been medically diagnosed with Celiac Disease but may still experience some of the symptoms of Celiac when consuming gluten-containing foods such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. If you suspect you are sensitive to gluten or have Celiac Disease, it is best to get tested by a doctor and then determine the proper course of action, including foods to eat and avoid, and proper supplementation if needed. It is possible to live a perfectly healthy life if you are avoiding gluten with the help of a doctor and registered dietitian.
I don’t have Celiac Disease or a sensitivity to gluten– should I avoid it?
No need to. There is little to no evidence other than testimonials that suggest going gluten-free can help you boost energy, lose weight or feel overall healthier – claims that are typically associated in the media with going “gluten-free.”
Why avoiding gluten could be hurting you if you don’t have Celiac Disease or a gluten sensitivity
While going “gluten-free” seems to be the trend, it may be doing more harm than good. For one, gluten-free products are not automatically healthier. In fact, they are typically more processed and not to mention, more costly.
Additionally, going gluten-free can set you up for nutrient deficiencies if not done right. Breads and cereals are a significant source of fiber and B vitamins in the American diet. Fiber is important for keeping your digestive tract healthy and more Americans aren’t eating enough.
Listen to your body
As a registered dietitian, I promote listening your body’s needs over diet trends. If you find you do better without consuming gluten, get tested to determine the best course of action and work with a registered dietitian to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs. If you feel find consuming gluten-containing foods, no need to fret!
— Mia Syn, M.S., R.D.N.
Mia is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and blogs at nutritionbymia.com