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Is your gluten-free diet actually healthy?

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A tray of gluten-free donuts topped with bacon at Fonuts bakery in Los Angeles, California September 19, 2011. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Going “gluten-free” seems to be all the rage these days. According to market research, sales of gluten-free foods and beverages are expected to grow from $4.2 billion in 2012 to over $6 billion by 2017.

Gluten-free products are everywhere, and some companies have even splurged to label products that never contained gluten as being “gluten-free,” hoping to generate more sales. But is swapping out whole grain pretzels for gluten-free pretzels really worth the extra money – and will it really help improve your health?

For the approximately 1 percent of the population diagnosed with Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a no-brainer. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting 1 in 100 people worldwide. Those who suffer from the disease are unable to properly digest gluten, and as a result often suffer damage to the small intestine and impaired nutrient absorption.

But for those without Celiac disease, the question of whether or not to pursue a gluten-free diet is more complicated.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley and is commonly used as filler in processed foods. It is often found in unexpected places such as veggie burgers, soy sauce, beauty products, alcoholic beverages and even medications.

Some people suffering from “gluten sensitivity” may experience indigestion, abdominal pain or even depression after eating gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Avoiding gluten can lessen these symptoms.

However, gluten-free products are not always healthier than their wheat-containing counterparts. Sometimes, gluten is replaced with ingredients, such as corn, that can also be associated with gut inflammation or allergic reactions, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

When gluten is removed from processed foods, ingredients with more calories and sugar are often added to help improve the taste and texture of gluten-free foods.  Ingredients generally used include corn, potatoes, tapioca, rice and sorghum, which are often lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than the ingredients they are replacing. This is especially dangerous for people with diabetes or blood sugar instabilities.

Some people report feeling less healthy, or putting on weight after switching to a gluten-free diet, because of the added fats, sugars, carbohydrates and lack of nutrition in many gluten-free products. After all, fast food pizza restaurants now offer gluten-free pizza and Dunkin' Donuts has toyed with the idea of offering a gluten-free doughnut.

To achieve true wellness, aim to eat a well-rounded diet and avoid highly processed foods – even those that are gluten-free. Instead, make a conscious choice to eat more whole foods, avoiding pesticides, hormones and antibiotics as often as possible. If you need to go gluten-free, focus on substituting natural grains, such as quinoa, or brown rice, for gluten.

Jacqueline Banks is a certified holistic health counselor and busy mother.  Her focus is on helping other busy moms in all stages of motherhood keep themselves and their little ones healthy and happy.  She uses natural and organic solutions to solve individual health problems and promote clean living. Check out her website at www.jbholistic.com