We hear a lot of talk about the benefits of a gluten-free diet. But what does it mean to be gluten-free, and what are the true health benefits? Here is some basic information you can use to decide if going gluten-free is the right thing for you.
What is gluten and what does maintaining a gluten-free diet involve?
Gluten refers to certain proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. People that are on gluten-free diets must avoid all products containing these three grains, and many times are also advised to avoid oats because many oat products may be contaminated with wheat or other problematic grains.
What grains are allowed, and which are good substitutions for the prohibited grains?
Corn, potatoes, rice, soybeans, tapioca, arrowroot, amaranth, quinoa, millet and buckwheat are all allowed and often used as substitutions in recipes. These grains do change the texture and consistency of the meal, so for some people, switching to a gluten-free diet can be difficult.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a condition where the body has an autoimmune response to the ingestion of gluten and ultimately causes deterioration of the lining of small intestine. The disease is difficult to diagnose and usually requires a biopsy of the small intestine before a definitive diagnosis can be made. Currently, the only successful treatment for patients with celiac disease is to switch to an entirely gluten-free diet, but this change can have an enormous positive impact on a person’s health very quickly.
Can people without celiac disease benefit from a gluten-free diet?
This is a controversial topic. Many people not diagnosed with celiac disease report feeling much better and more energetic after they remove gluten from their diet. Although these people might not be allergic to gluten, they may have a level of gluten intolerance or sensitivity. There is not a wide body of research on gluten intolerance and because a slight insensitivity doesn't damage the small intestine, it is difficult to diagnose. However, more doctors are looking at gluten insensitivity as a real disorder that needs to be addressed.
What's the bottom line?
If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, eating a gluten-free diet is an essential part of your treatment. If you suspect you might have sensitivity to gluten, talk to your doctor. Unnecessarily switching to a gluten-free diet might cause you to become deficient in iron, B12 or other healthy nutrients found in products containing gluten. In addition, many of the new gluten-free products on the market contain added fats or sugars, and you might end up replacing gluten with unneeded empty calories.
If you do not have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten and your goal is instead to lose weight and eat a more balanced diet, you are better off replacing processed grains with whole grains and continuing to pile on the fruits and vegetables!
For a delicious gluten-free Italian meatball recipe,