Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County
Recently, the gluten-free diet has become popular. Gluten as it is made up of the two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which are found primarily in food products containing wheat, barley or rye. These proteins are an important part of many packaged food products to help maintain their shape and structure. Eliminating gluten from one’s diet is the only treatment option for people with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that shows up as structural damage to the small intestine which is caused by eating foods with gluten content and may cause pain, gas, and unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. Gluten sensitivity presents similar symptoms but does not cause intestinal damage. It is not clear why this elimination gluten free diet has become so popular through media attention when only 1% of Americans actually suffer from Celiac Disease, but it is important to know the facts before jumping on the gluten-free diet bandwagon. One misconception about a gluten-free diet is that it will promote weight loss, which is not supported by evidence-based scientific research. As a matter of fact, research has confirmed that starting a gluten-free diet caused weight gain in Celiac patients, which may be due to increased consumption of grains that are prepared with gluten-free ingredients, including more fats which add more calories to the diet. When comparing grain products such as breads, pretzels, or crackers with their gluten-free alternatives, it is evident that many gluten-free products are higher in, not only fat, but sugar and calories as well. According to the United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, one 29 gram slice of whole wheat bread contains 71 calories, 0.9 grams of total fat and 1.2 grams of sugar, while one 25 gram slice of gluten-free whole grain bread contains 77 calories, 2.3 grams of total fat and 2.45 grams of sugar. Another reason why a person may follow a gluten-free diet is because they believe it is much healthier than consuming gluten-containing foods. Following this elimination diet, however, may increase the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Again, looking at a slice of gluten-free bread, it contains approximately 29% less fiber, 72% less iron, 59% less thiamin, 71% less niacin and 72% less zinc than a slice of commercially prepared whole wheat bread. and gluten sensitive population. If you are still unsure whether a gluten-free diet is beneficial for you, getting tested for Celiac Disease or for a food allergy may be the next step. The National Institute of Health’s guidelines offer suggestions on blood work and follow-up procedures that would test for possible Celiac Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or allergies which might indicate a person would possibly need a gluten-free diet. However, one test is not enough on which to base a diagnosis. Before starting a gluten-free diet, a person needs to take small steps and seek out more information by contacting a physician or a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist. A gluten-free diet is not needed by a healthy person, only those who have a diagnosed need of a specific medical condition after testing.