Gluten-Free: Diet or Fad?

By Candace Chemtob

With “A-list” movie stars, and nearly one third of Americans decreasing or completely eliminating gluten (Huffington press, 2013), why is “everyone” on this diet? And what is gluten? Gluten is a latin word meaning glue and is found mainly in wheat, barley, and rye. It is a naturally occurring protein that gives these grains their texture, structure, and ability to “rise.” Keeping in mind that breads, cereals, pastas, and baked goods, plus many other less obvious foods, such as soy sauce, contain this protein, becoming gluten-free requires restricting many foods that are part of a healthy diet.

Is the gluten-free diet a fad diet? The answer is yes and no. For the one percent of the population with a medical condition called celiac disease, the answer is definitively no. In celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that destroys the lining of the small intestines leading to decreased nutrient absorption, and a myriad of symptoms including weight loss, abdominal pain, bloating, failure to thrive, and intermittent diarrhea. For patients with confirmed celiac disease (diagnosed by blood tests and biopsy of the small intestine) following a strict gluten-free diet is an accepted medical treatment for this disease (NIH).

In the absence of celiac disease, there is a condition referred to as “gluten sensitivity.” This term is used to describe patients who experience gastrointestinal problems associated with eating gluten and whose symptoms lessen on a gluten-free diet. While there seems little doubt that some individuals without celiac disease are sensitive to gluten, there is no definitive laboratory testing for this condition. Research is being done to better understand, diagnose, and treat “gluten sensitivity.”

SM Chemtob May 2014

Grocery stores are loaded with gluten-free options. But before you just jump on the gluten-free diet bandwagon, educate yourself fully to make sure it will
work with your lifestyle. As an active athlete, you may be depriving yourself of critical vitamins and minerals and, even more important, carbohydrates that
are the fuel of maximal athletic output and performance.

Different from celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, some suffer from wheat allergies. For proper diagnosis of wheat allergies, a panel of tests (skin and blood) can be ordered and interpreted by a physician. A challenge test, involving eating small portions of gluten, is often used to confirm test results. (www.acaai.org).

Considering that only one percent of the population has celiac disease, 6 to 7% of the population is thought to be gluten sensitive, and wheat allergies are rare in adults, why are so many Americans willingly restricting gluten? For those who believe that being gluten-free is “healthier” and/or is a weight loss diet, unfortunately, they have been ill-advised. By eliminating many whole grain foods, the gluten-free diet can come up short in fiber, vitamin, and minerals. And with skinny stars, like Gwyneth Paltow and Victoria Beckham, touting the gluten-free diet, some are making the wrong assumption that the gluten-free diet is a weight loss diet. With increasing popularity, the gluten-free product market is growing, now with $4.2 billion sales annually. But be aware, many of these gluten-free products are processed foods and many are higher in fat and calories than their gluten containing counterparts. The gluten-free diet is neither healthier nor is it a weight loss diet, and if used for either purpose is nothing but another fad diet.

And finally for the athlete, unless medically necessary, a gluten-free diet is not recommended. A gluten-free diet is generally lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but most importantly is also lower in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the fuel of maximal athletic output, or performance. A diet deficient in carbohydrates will deplete glycogen stores and hence, it will take less time for you to reach fatigue. Keep in mind, the healthiest diet is the one with the most variety. Eat in moderation, and avoid diets that promote severe restrictions.

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