With more gluten-free products popping up on grocery store shelves, and an increasing number of restaurants touting gluten-free menu options, many people can’t help but wonder, "Is giving up gluten better for my health?"
We turned to HealthiNation’s own Dr. Paul Knoepflmacher for his expert opinion on this health hot topic.
Gluten is a protein contained in many popular grains, including wheat, barley and rye. When dough is kneaded and heated, this protein forms links, giving bread its chewy elasticity and fluffy texture.
However, approximately 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that damages the inner lining of the small intestine. Awareness of celiac disease has risen in the past decade, so more doctors are testing for it, which explains why you're hearing more about it lately.
For people with this autoimmune disease, consuming even a small amount of gluten sets off a series of negative immune reactions in the gut. As previously stated, chronic consumption of gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, and it also prevents proper absorption of key nutrients.
It leads to systemic inflammation, causing GI symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and pain, and it can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, anemia and systemic illness.
Eating even a tiny particle of gluten can cause these symptoms, which is why the only treatment for celiac disease is to permanently follow a gluten-free diet.
In addition, a portion of the population experiences negative reactions after gluten consumption, but without the severe intestinal damage that is seen in those with celiac.
For these people, avoiding gluten will also help relieve symptoms, which may include headaches, joint pain or “brain fog.” For this reason, many recipes are now focusing on making old favorites without the gluten.
Celiac disease can be diagnosed with a blood test and confirmed with a simple small intestine biopsy done on routine endoscopy. Non-celiac gluten intolerance is most accurately diagnosed through an elimination diet supervised by a physician.
From Dr. Knoepflmacher’s perspective, the current health trend of self-diagnosing can do more harm than good. If you know people who claim going gluten-free has helped them lose weight or alleviated other symptoms, it may just be because they cut back on processed starch in general.
A healthy diet shouldn’t be focused on refined carbs, regardless of the source (gluten-free or not). In addition, special gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier than conventional products, and some may even be less nutritious because they are not fortified, or they may have added fat and sugar for taste.
The bottom line? Don’t confuse the elimination of gluten with the benefits of consuming less refined carbs in general. Dr. Knoepflmacher stresses there is no inherent benefit to avoiding gluten if you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac, an allergy or a sensitivity to gluten.
If you suspect you are experiencing negative reactions to gluten, it is recommended to have a doctor oversee the process of diagnosis and treatment.