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Health Benefits of Gluten-Free Diets

Gluten-free is getting people excited! Fascinating physicians, nutritionists, and consumers alike, gluten is increasingly making its way into conversations and topping the health headlines.

Until the last two years, most Americans had never heard about gluten, let alone products claiming to be “gluten-free.” So, what’s all the fuss about?

Here are the basic facts:

What is gluten?

Gluten is an umbrella term that encompasses certain types of proteins commonly used in cereal grains, including barley, rye, spelt, and wheat. Gluten is created during the baking process when glutenin and gliadin molecules join together, creating a cross-linked network of gluten molecules that trap carbon dioxide bubbles and cause the dough to rise. Over time, the baking process coagulates the gluten, giving the baked good its final shape.

Because gluten gives products more elasticity and a chewier texture, gluten is a staple component of most grain-based foods, including bread, cereal, pastas and more. But it also creeps up in less obvious products: candy, sauces and marinades, even many prescription medications.

Who should eat gluten-free?

While gluten is not a bad thing in itself, many groups of people react to eating gluten. For people with autoimmune disorders (such as celiac disease and wheat allergies) gluten can be toxic. Gluten can also have harmful effects on a growing number of individuals diagnosed with gluten sensitivities.

Researchers speculate that over one to six percent of the population suffers from gluten sensitivities, or anywhere from three to 18 million people. Some research estimates that GS may effect as much as 10 percent of the population.1 While many people remain undiagnosed, they can experience symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, migraines, tiredness, ADHD, and bone or joint pain.2

For people who do not have celiac disease, wheat allergies, and gluten sensitivities, eating gluten-free can still be positive. Going gluten-free often means avoiding processed foods, such as refined bread products, fried foods, and candy. Gluten-free diets promote eating naturally gluten-free foods, such as vegetables and fruits and unprocessed fish and meat.

In choosing natural foods, people stay clear of not just the gluten, but also the fats and sugars prevalent in processed food. As a result, people achieve the benefits typically associated with a well-balanced and healthy diet: improved weight management, better heart health, and enhanced cognitive functioning.

In other words, unless you have a gluten allergy, there’s no need to dogmatically give up the grain-based products - especially if they are made with fiber-rich whole grains. However, if gluten-free means cutting out processed foods from your diet, by all means, go gluten-free today.  

Sources:

1. BMC Medicine: “Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.” 2011; 9: 23. 

2. PubMed: “New understanding of gluten sensitivity.” February 28, 2012.

3.  Forbes: "Is a gluten-free diet right for you?" June 6, 2012.