Kicking the Gluten Habit: Going Gluten-Free Is the Latest Diet Fad-But Is It Healthy?

By Fast, Yvona | E Magazine, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Kicking the Gluten Habit: Going Gluten-Free Is the Latest Diet Fad-But Is It Healthy?


Fast, Yvona, E Magazine


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A gluten-flee cake was served at Chelsea Clinton's wedding. Actresses Mary Louise Parker, Deborah Ann Woll, Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow have all stopped eating gluten. Every day brings more pop culture news about the gluten-free diet fad. It's been touted as the latest health trend and a new way to lose weight.

Restaurant menus and supermarket aisles teem with gluten-free products--and sales of gluten-flee foods are growing about 30% annually. From breakfast cereals to pasta, pizza and beer, there are now thousands of gluten-free alternatives ready for consumption (provided you're willing to pay the higher prices). But are they healthier?

It depends. If you're going gluten free to lose weight, you've missed the boat. Most gluten-free products are stripped of nutrients and made to last forever on supermarket shelves. Gluten-flee desserts are loaded with sugar and fat. Like any other packaged snack food, these products won't help you lose weight.

What's So Bad about Gluten?

Gluten is a lectin-type protein found in wheat, rye and barley that makes dough elastic and baked goods chewy. Those with celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune condition, must avoid all foods containing gluten. Those with gluten sensitivity also need to be cautious.

Currently, 1% of Americans--about three million--have celiac disease (CD). Another 5-6% may be gluten sensitive (GS). The numbers of people diagnosed with either the disease or the sensitivity are on the rise, although it's not clear why. It could be due to the overabundance of wheat-based products (like pasta), new high-gluten wheat strains created to make fluffy Wonder Bread, or the way grain is processed. In any case, there is no medication for CD or GS; the only treatment is eliminating 100% of dietary gluten.

Many people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are unaware they have it, because the symptoms mimic other diseases. Before being diagnosed with celiac, Priscilla Pierce had medical tests for lead and mercury poisoning and Lyme disease--but the culprit turned out to be gluten. "I had stomachaches all of my life with strange sudden weight loss," she says. "When I started the gluten-flee diet, the symptoms reversed. No more constant diarrhea, and even my nervous twitching is gone." When Tracie Neyman was eating gluten, she had seizures, ataxia (lack of muscle coordination that effects walking, swallowing and eye movements) and asthma. She has since been diagnosed with both celiac and wheat allergy, and is seizure-, ataxia- and asthma-flee.

Eliminating Possibilities

Michelle Babb, a nutritionist and faculty practitioner at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, Washington, has extensive experience with food allergies and sensitivities. She explains that the best way to tell if gluten is responsible for abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, joint pain, depression, mood instability, rashes, acne or other problems is through an elimination diet. …

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