Have you been wondering what a gluten-free diet is or if it’s something that you should try? Have you been considering trying a gluten-free diet to lose weight or to help you manage your diabetes? With so many celebrities touting the benefits of a gluten-free diet (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry, Jessica Alba, and Kourtney Kardashian, to name a few), you might be thinking that you need to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, as well. But should you really? Since November is Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, what better time to brush up on the facts and fallacies about this diet.
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Gluten-free diet overview
Gluten is a protein that is found in some grains ,such as rye, barley, and wheat, along with wheat derivatives (e.g., semolina, spelt, farro, farina, wheatberries). Other foods that contain gluten are malt, brewer’s yeast, and wheat starch. Additionally, many foods may contain one or more of these items as an ingredient.
People who have celiac disease, an autoimmune response to gluten that affects the small intestine, must avoid all sources of gluten (this is the only treatment for celiac disease). People who have nonceliac gluten sensitivity may benefit from avoiding gluten, as well.
Facts and fallacies
People with diabetes are more likely to have celiac disease than people without diabetes.
Fact. Approximately 6% of people with type 1 diabetes will also have celiac disease. Both are autoimmune conditions. “For this reason, screening for celiac disease is recommended after a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes,” according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Celiac disease in type 1 diabetes may not have any symptoms, although unexplained hypoglycemia can be a sign of malabsorption related to celiac disease. There is no known connection between type 2 diabetes and celiac disease, however.
A gluten-free diet can help with diabetes management since it’s a low-carb diet.
Fallacy. A gluten-free diet is not necessarily low in carbohydrate. While certain grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley, must be avoided on a gluten-free diet, other sources of carbohydrate that are gluten-free can be consumed, including rice, potatoes, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, corn, peas, fruit, milk, and yogurt. However, you can still follow a lower-carb diet if you have celiac disease. If you have diabetes, you’ll need to be mindful of all sources of carb that you consume, even those that are gluten-free.
If you have a wheat allergy, you need to follow a gluten-free diet.
Fallacy. Wheat allergy and celiac disease are not the same. A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods that contain wheat, and for some people, inhaling wheat flour. Symptoms of a wheat allergy include hives or a skin rash, cramps, nausea, vomiting, stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, headaches, asthma, and/or anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction). Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction, while celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the digestive tract. People with a wheat allergy must avoid anything containing wheat, but they can still eat other foods that contain gluten, such as barley or rye.
Oatmeal is gluten-free.
Fact. To expand on this, pure, uncontaminated oats are gluten-free, says the website beyondceliac.org. However, some oats are cross-contaminated in mills that handle gluten-containing grains, as well. If you eat oats, look for oats that are labeled “pure, uncontaminated,” “gluten-free,” or “certified gluten-free.” The FDA considers gluten-free products to contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Use caution when it comes to oats and be sure to read labels. It’s also possible that some people with celiac react to oats — even gluten-free oats. If you develop any symptoms after eating gluten-free oats, let your doctor or dietitian know.
Celebrities are touting and raving about a gluten-free diet, so it’s a good idea to follow their lead and go on one yourself.
Fallacy. A gluten-free diet may be all the rage in Hollywood, but don’t be too quickly sucked into celebrity claims. Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, currently, there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet is helpful, prevents disease, or improves health.
Not all gluten-free foods are healthy.
Fact. While it’s great that there are more and more gluten-free products available to consumers who need to follow a gluten-free diet, it’s important not to think that all gluten-free foods are healthy. Many snack foods — for example, chips, cookies, and candy — are now gluten-free, but these foods still generally only provide empty calories and not a lot of other nutrients. Gluten-free hotdogs and bacon are still sources of saturated fat, sodium, and nitrates. And beverages such as kombucha, sodas, and meal replacement drinks are generally gluten-free anyway, but they still may contain carbohydrate.
Gluten sensitivity is not the same as celiac disease.
Fact. Gluten sensitivity, also called gluten intolerance, is different than celiac disease in that it usually does not damage the lining of the small intestine (research suggests that wheat exposure in these individuals may cause intestinal cell damage). About 6% to 7% of the population is estimated to be gluten intolerant. Individuals with gluten sensitivity note symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, joint or bone pain, fatigue, and a “foggy mind,” but they don’t test positive for celiac disease. It’s not entirely clear that gluten is the culprit, however; some research indicates that a type of carbohydrate found in some foods may be the trigger for these symptoms. There is no cure for gluten intolerance, but if you have this condition, work with your health care provider or dietitian to plan your diet.
For more information about a gluten-free diet and celiac disease, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation’s website.