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Why are so many people going gluten-free?

If you feel like you cannot go to the grocery store without seeing a label touting a food’s gluten-free benefits or pick up a magazine without reading about a celebrity's gluten-free lifestyle, you aren’t alone. Eliminating gluten is the only way to treat celiac disease, an allergic reaction to gluten that damages the lining of the small intestine.

However, as part of a new diet fad, many people are going gluten-free to lose weight. Shayna Komar, a registered and licensed dietician at Piedmont Cancer Wellness, sets the record straight. “A gluten-free diet is one that excludes the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, barely and rye.

The purpose of a gluten-free diet is to treat celiac disease,” says Komar, “People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, which causes inflammation in their small intestines. If they follow a gluten-free meal plan, they can eliminate some of their symptoms.” Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Chronic diarrhea or constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Recurring abdominal pain and bloating
  • Gas
  • Pale, foul-smelling stool
  • Unexplained anemia
  • Muscle cramps and/or bone pain
  • Pain in the joints
  • Tingling numbness in the legs
  • Delayed growth
  • Fatigue
  • Painful skin rash
  • Missed menstrual periods (which is linked to excessive weight loss)
  • Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel

Why Going Gluten-Free is So Popular

“It’s twofold,” says Komar. “There are a lot of people who are being diagnosed with celiac disease. We now have blood tests, genetic testing or biopsies of the small intestine that can easily diagnose the condition. In fact, a recent study said nearly 2 million Americans have celiac disease.” She explains that the disease itself is not new, but awareness has increased thanks to the prevalence of testing and the fact that food has changed over time. “People are eating a lot more processed food rather than whole foods,” she says. “Gluten goes through a lot of processing, which makes it even less tolerable for those with sensitivities or allergies.”

Processed foods that contain gluten include:

  • Bread
  • Pizza dough
  • Pancakes
  • Pretzels
  • Crackers
  • Baked goods

Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity

“There are different levels of sensitivity, which are not necessarily related to celiac disease,” Komar says. “If a client thinks he or she has gluten sensitivity, I recommend they try a gluten-free diet. Their GI issues will often go away.

“Unfortunately, people are using this as a fad diet to lose weight,” she says. “If you cut out gluten and don’t have celiac disease, you can lose vitamins and minerals in your food plan."

She cautions that going gluten-free does not necessarily mean you are following a healthy meal plan. For example, while some corn chips are gluten-free, they are often processed, high in fat and low in nutrients.

However, there can be benefits to gluten awareness.

“If someone is really looking at food labels, that’s a good thing,” Komar says. “The less processed food we eat, the better."

Healthy Gluten-Free Options

If your doctor diagnoses you with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there are plenty of foods you can still enjoy, including beans, legumes, eggs, fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables and most dairy products.

“Because of the popularity of gluten-free eating, there’s a lot available at mainstream grocery stores now,” says Komar.

You can even buy gluten-free grains and flours, such as rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, flax and buckwheat.

Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining

Navigating the waters of gluten-free restaurant dining can be trickier.  

“Be very careful at restaurants if you are gluten-free,” says Komar. “I recommend to clients that they call ahead and make sure the chef knows how to prepare gluten-free meals. You can also bring your own bread or crackers.”

To really ensure that a restaurant prepares your food safely, carry index cards that explain what you can and cannot eat. Give this card to your server, who can relay information to the chef, she says.

Avoid Cross-Contamination at Home

“Be careful about cross-contamination if you follow a gluten-free diet,” says Komar. “Use separate containers for food like cereal and flour that don’t contain gluten.”

She also recommends designating cooking utensils as gluten-free.

“Sometimes cleaning the utensils works fine, but for those with celiac disease, I recommend using separate utensils,” she explains.

“The more whole foods you can eat and the more you can cook at home where you control what’s going into your body, the better,” she says. “This is a good rule of thumb for anyone who’s gluten-free.”

Her key message?

“If you think you have gluten sensitivity on any scale, first see your primary care physician to determine if you have celiac disease,” she says. “If you decide to go gluten-free, do it the healthy way. Consult a registered dietician to ensure your food plan is not missing essential vitamins and minerals.”

Check out Health and Wellness for healthy gluten-free recipes.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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