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The Endurance Dietitian: All my friends are going gluten-free, should I be too?

By Kim McDevitt, MPH RD on October 23, 2014

The Endurance Dietitian: All my friends are going gluten-free, should I be too?

It seems the fad today is elimination diets. Whether you follow a vegan (no animal products), paleo (nothing that can’t be foraged), fruitarian (only fruit and vegetables), or gluten-free (no gluten) diet, the main focus is on what you’re not eating. Today I get so many questions and comments around gluten-free diets, with many inquirers placing the restrictive eating plan on themselves for unnecessary and misguided reason. Here’s my take on the gluten-free diet trend:

The gluten-free facts

Celiac disease is now recognized as one of the most common chronic diseases in the world and it is estimated that it affects 1 in every 100 – 200 people in North America.Health Canada. (2008) Celiac Disease. Accessed 9/29/14 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/securit/gluten_conn-lien_gluten-eng.php And, for these people, no amount of gluten is tolerated or accepted and they must maintain a strict diet free from gluten.Food and Drug Administration. (2014).  Gluten-free Labeling of Foods. Accessed on 9/29/2014 from http://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/allergens/ucm362510.htm

For those with celiac disease, gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye, trigger production of antibodies. These antibodies attack and damage the lining of the small intestine. And it’s this damage that limits the ability to both digest and absorb nutrients, putting those with the disease at risk for vitamin deficiencies. Additionally, inflammation and severe abdominal discomfort result2 It can be obvious if you’ve a gluten sensitivity. Symptoms can include severe abdominal pain, anemia, vitamin deficiency, nausea, recurring diarrhea, constipation and weight loss.

Sensitive to gluten? Avoid these foods:

The good news is that with increasing popularity and awareness around this diet, gluten–free foods are becoming more available. And, with labeling laws set by FDA and Health Canada, a food can be labeled gluten-free only if it has no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

A quick scan of the grocery store today and you’ll notice more and more gluten-free labels. As a general rule, following a gluten-free diet means removing all foods with three main ingredients:

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley

Labeling aside, always make a point to scan for those ingredients, which can be hidden in unassuming foods such as salad dressings and sauces.

OK, I know I’m not sensitive to gluten. Should I still be gluten-free?

Here’s the thing: eating gluten-free doesn’t automatically mean healthy. There are many gluten-free, processed, junk foods out there. So if you don’t have a true allergy or sensitivity, don’t reach for gluten-free food just because it has a health halo.  Eating gluten-free does not guarantee weight loss or better health I’m a huge advocate of moderation. Aside from allergies, I believe no food should be entirely off-limits. When we restrict foods we may develop unhealthy eating habits, and potential nutrient deficiencies.

My main advice on gluten

If you’re searching for a quick weight-loss plan, or considering a gluten- free diet because it’s what all your friends are doing, I urge you to really consider your reasoning. Most likely you’re looking for parameters around reducing the amount of processed foods or carbohydrates you consume, and therefore instead of making gluten the culprit, I recommend setting broader parameters such as removing all processed foods or reducing daily grain intake by half.

If you suspect you have Celiac disease, make an appointment with your health care practitioner to get a definite answer. For a full list of gluten-free foods and gluten-free resources visit: celiac.com or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, where you can find both resources and a dietitian in your area to support you with your diet and lifestyle modifications.

Gluten-free or not, you can always, count on the Vega® product line for nutrient dense (and delicious) meal and snack options that are gluten-free. My personal favorite? Vega One™ Vanilla Chai!