Q&A Series: Gluten-Free Diet Unpacked

Unpacking Gluten-Free Diet
Unpacking Gluten-Free Diet

After getting the scoop on the Paleo Diet, I sat down with Megan Holt, DrPh(c), MPH and Registered Dietitian, to get more information about another popular diet craze–the gluten-free diet.  –Kayla

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Kayla: So, what exactly is gluten, and what is the gluten-free diet?

Megan: Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains, but it has been incorporated into a lot of different food products.  Rye, barley, bulgur, triticale, some oats (due to cross contamination), and wheat products, of course, contain gluten, as do many sauces and meat tenderizers or seasonings.  Gluten tends to slip its way into many products because of its elastic structure and ability to act as a thickener. A gluten-free diet is simply an exclusion of gluten, which means the diet rules out all of the pastas, breads, pastries, and cookies that are gluten-containing, but also many other sauces and seasonings.

Kayla: I know that I’ve heard a lot about gluten-free products and the gluten-free diet within the last year or two, but how long has this diet been around?

Megan: The idea of a gluten-free diet gained popularity about 5 years ago, but it really exploded about two years ago in conjunction with the Paleo diet.  A number of studies have supported benefits of a gluten-free diet for certain subsets of the population, and largely as a result of the popularity, we have an increased awareness (and an increase in the number of people being tested).  We are now more aware of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, and, given the availability of gluten-free products on menus in stores, sticking to a gluten-free diet is far less stigmatizing and isolating than it was in the past.  These are real benefits for people who are genuinely gluten-sensitive.

Kayla: What are the benefits of gluten?

Megan: There are decades of research that supports the use of whole grains in our diet.  High intake of whole grains are protective in terms of lowering risk of major causes of death in the United States:  cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome (in part due to the fact that low intake of whole grains is associated with higher abdominal fat and obesity).  Breads, grains, and pastas make up the bulk of the western diet (for better or worse), so one benefit of gluten intake in the US is that many of our grain products (which are gluten containing) are vitamin-fortified.  So, we tend to get a lot of vitamins and minerals, like folate, fiber, iron, and zinc, from gluten-containing products.  Of course, there are other, sometimes better sources for these vitamins, but gluten-containing products are a really common accessible source in the US.  Finally, whole grains themselves are very satiating, and they contribute to sustaining normal levels of blood sugar, even more so than a lot of the gluten-free counterparts.  One example would be whole wheat pasta versus (gluten-free) brown rice pasta.  Whole wheat pasta is a little more stabilizing and has more fiber and protein than brown rice pasta.  That’s just one example of a not-necessarily-healthier gluten alternative.

Kayla: Can you explain gluten sensitivity? What is the difference between that and celiac disease?

Megan: So, with the explosion of the gluten-free fad, we’ve become better at recognizing the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, which is milder than celiac disease and usually characterized by physical symptoms, with no damage to the small intestine.  Symptoms can include: diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, rashes, joint pain, and other inflammatory symptoms.  Celiac disease is characterized by an immune response to gluten, which can lead to the destruction of the villi in the small intestine, which can be severe and debilitating.  Many of these folks suffer from serious nutrient deficiencies just because they can’t absorb what they’re eating, so the removal of gluten from their diets is imperative.  But true celiac disease affects less than 1% of the population.

Kayla: How does one confirm gluten sensitivity or celiac disease?

Megan: Well, the gold standard to check for celiac disease is a biopsy of the small intestine to look for flattening of the villi.  Some doctors will perform an endoscopy to actually look for damage to the small intestine, but some look to blood tests that reveal the level of antibodies that have developed.  If these antibodies are outside a normal range (high), it may indicate a gluten intolerance or celiac disease.  But usually people will just try an elimination diet–eliminating gluten and then reintroducing it and looking for symptoms.

Kayla: But that only works if you’re only eliminating gluten, not adding in other things, or completely changing your diet…

Megan: Exactly.  Most of the people I see are just starting to pay attention to quality of diet or trying to improve their quality of diet and may feel like one the markers of improving their diet would be excluding gluten.  When I see people who want to follow a gluten-free diet, what I typically ask them to do is see their physician to check if they can get a test to confirm non-celiac gluten sensitivity or celiac disease if that’s what they suspect.  If there’s no confirmation, we work for a few weeks to clean up the overall quality of diet and I ask them to pay attention to the appreciable benefits they experience from simply improving the quality of diet.  Then, we can exclude the gluten-containing foods, substituting them for something comparable for a month or so before reintroducing gluten and noting any symptoms.  Changing the overall diet while excluding gluten is not ideal.

Kayla: Are there any benefits of a gluten-free diet for people without gluten sensitivity?

Megan: None that are evidence-based.  If we’re just excluding gluten or substituting whole grains for gluten-free grains, then no, there’s no benefit.  Moving away from genetically-modified foods and toward organic foods is beneficial, and this is a shift that is often made at the same time as one decides to go gluten-free.  But generally, gluten-free products tend to be more highly processed and are not fortified, compared to many gluten-containing grains, so you actually get less fiber and have a higher intake of processed foods when you’re just swapping out whole grains for gluten-free grains–unless you have legitimate gluten sensitivity.  That’s always the exception to the rule.  For most of the clients I see, those who don’t have gluten sensitivity, reintroducing gluten after elimination brings on no symptoms, other than perhaps a bit of an adjustment to a higher intake of fiber.

Kayla: So how can someone going gluten-free for a legitimate reason do so in a healthy way?

Megan: There are ways to be gluten-free more healthfully, that are more than just swapping out the gluten-containing grains for gluten-free ones.  For example, someone can get a lot of nutrients from beans, lentils, and other whole grains that are gluten-free like brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, and gluten free oats, or from fruits and vegetables.  Using these foods as staples is very healthy.  I’m a firm believer that you can have a balanced diet that excludes things you don’t want to eat or things that don’t make you feel well, but you have to be intentional about adding other food sources to make up for what you’re losing.  You have to take a balanced approach.

Kayla: How can I tell if someone going gluten-free is really struggling with disordered eating?

Megan: Unfortunately, I often see people using the gluten-free diet in the service of disordered eating, that is, as a reason for restricting their eating.  Then, if weight loss happens, it’s because of the restriction, not because their diet is gluten-free.  If you’re concerned about someone going gluten-free, you can always suggest that they see their physician for confirmatory testing.  Other red flags:  Is he/she restricting food /calories outside of those that are gluten containing? Has there been an undue or unnecessary weight loss? Is he/she unable to enjoy food or participate in activities involving food?

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We would love your thoughts on our conversation about the gluten-free diet. Post your thoughts and any additional questions for us in the comments section below. Also, let us know if there are any other diet or wellness trends you would like unpacked in future Q&A blog posts.

In good health –Megan and Kayla

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