The Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
The number of Americans on a gluten-free diet has tripled between 2009 and 2014. Despite its growing popularity, are there really benefits of a gluten-free diet all can reap?
Ridding gluten is essential for those diagnosed with celiac disease. However, only about 1 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease.
Interestingly, though, the prevalence of celiac appears steady but followers of a gluten-free diet increase. In fact, the number of Americans on a gluten-free diet has tripled between 2009 and 2014.
Researchers indicate a growing interest of a gluten-free diet could be due to a variety of factors. These includes the public perception that it may be healthier and the growing availability of gluten-free products. Some may even self-diagnosis of gluten sensitivity, therefore adopting a gluten-free diet.
Despite the increased prevalence, who truly benefits from a gluten-free diet?
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the general name for the protein found in wheat, rye, barley. Crossbreeds of these grains, including triticale, also contains gluten. While oats are naturally gluten-free, they are mostly manufactured with gluten-containing products and may become contaminated.
Wheat pastas, cereals, and breads are obvious sources of gluten, though it can also be in unlikely sources. Gluten may be hidden in sauces, dressings, and frozen products. Cosmetics and supplements may also contain gluten.
Despite the broad food supply it encompasses, gluten is naturally absent in a wide variety of foods. Amongst the many, foods to eat for a healthy gluten-free diet include gluten-free grains, fresh produce, and lean proteins.
Incorporating more of these nutrient-dense foods can be beneficial to all. But following a gluten-free diet may offer further specific benefits, especially to those managing celiac disease.
Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
The benefits of going gluten-free are primarily related to those managing celiac disease. Also known as coeliac disease, celiac sprue, non-tropical sprue, and gluten sensitivity enteropathy, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. It is characterized by an abnormal response to ingested gluten.
When individuals with celiac disease ingest gluten, the body presumes it to be "toxic." The reaction stimulates an immune response and the gastrointestinal (GI) track is essentially attacked. Gluten-induced attacks can cause diarrhea, bloating, and other uncomfortable digestive issues, along with long-term consequences.
Recurring attacks can damage the villi in the digestive lining, or the small fingerlike projections that promote nutrition absorption. Eventually, this can result to a number of nutritional deficiencies and conditions, including:
• Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
• Lactose intolerance
• Osteoporosis, or bone loss
At this time, following a gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Ridding gluten from the diet can mitigate these risks. Protecting the digestive lining by dismissing gluten can help mitigate such risks and ultimately improve quality of life.
Health Benefits in Non-Celiac Disease Patients
Researchers have estimated there are around 1.76 million people with celiac disease in the United States. However, about 2.7 million more people adhere to a gluten-free diet even though they do not have celiac disease.
The research is relatively slim regarding benefits extending to those without celiac disease or sensitivity. But the health benefits a gluten-free diet in non-celiac disease patients may extend to the following conditions and populations:
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): IBS is described as a group of symptoms affecting the digestive tract. Although structural damage is absent, individuals may experience symptoms similar to celiac disease, including abdominal pain and changes in bowel patterns. Symptoms can also potentially resulting to anxiety and depression along with reducing quality of life.
The cause of IBS is unclear, though experts speculate a number of innate factors. Risks may include genetics and food sensitivities, which could become triggered by stress or environmental exposures. At this point in time, there is no cure of IBS and management primarily fixates on adapting lifestyle habits. Some show to benefit from a gluten-free diet.
• Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): NCGS is an umbrella term associated to GI and non-GI symptoms similar to celiac disease. Despite the similarities, NCGS does not lead to intestinal damage. These symptoms respond to a gluten-free diet and recur with gluten ingestion.
• Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic brain disorder in which individuals may experience delusions, confusion, personality loss, and bizarre behavior. Though schizophrenia cannot be cured, it can be controlled with lifelong treatment. Management may include a combination of medication and psychological and social therapy.
It has been suggested that patients with schizophrenia have higher levels of antibodies relative to celiac disease than the general population. However, research is limited regarding the impact of gluten restriction with schizophrenia.
• Atopy: According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, atopy “refers to the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases.” Atopy is typically associated with heightened immune responses to common allergens, especially inhaled and food allergens.
Patients with NGCS and IBS symptoms have shown to have a higher prevalence of atopic diseases. They also have more non-grain food allergies in childhood. There is some evidence showing following a gluten-free diet reduces atopic and GI symptoms in a pediatric population.
• Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia is a complex disorder that causes widespread pain and tenderness of the body, including of the joints. It is often accompanied by fatigue and altered sleep, memory, and mood patterns. Episodes can also come and go and may be triggered by physical or emotional stress. Following a gluten-free and low-calorie diet has shown to improve fibromyalgia symptoms.
Individuals with various autoimmune and inflammatory diseases may also benefit from a gluten-free diet. For instance, an autoimmune thyroid disease is often accompanied by celiac disease and ridding gluten shows positive outcomes. There is also a connection between gluten and arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects the joints.
Should I Go Gluten-Free?
First and foremost, gluten is not a harmful compound in all individuals. In fact, only one percent of the general U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease. But for those with a true diagnosis, a gluten-free diet is warranted and the only known treatment at this time.
Other individuals who may benefit from a gluten-free diet are those sensitive to gluten, including NCGS. It may also be warranted to manage the conditions indicated above, including IBS and schizophrenia.
Despite the potential benefit of going gluten-free, there are some risks one should consider.
Risks of Going Gluten-Free
• Nutrient Deficiencies: Eliminating gluten also naturally eliminates other essential nutrients from the diet, especially if not replenished from other sources. Wheat, barley, rye, and oats are the prominent sources of gluten and contain valuable vitamins and minerals. Iron, niacin, folate, and several B vitamins can be compromised after eliminating those notorious gluten sources. These deficiencies can result in anemia, energy loss, diarrhea, and several others.
• Weight Gain: Taking to some gluten-free products can also lead to weight gain and prompt additional deficiency risk. For instance, some tend to attribute “gluten-free” to healthy. However, those gluten-free cookies are often still laden in refined sugar and oils. These products tend to supply empty calories and pose the risk for weight gain.
• Financial Costs: Eating gluten-free can be cost-friendly. However, those indicated “gluten-free” products can also come with a heavier price tag. For instance, specialty gluten-free baked goods and boxed items may be more expensive than its gluten-containing relative.
• Stress: Individuals should also consider the mental impact of going gluten-free. Adhering to a gluten-free diet may be overwhelming, as it can be tough to cut out gluten-containing foods. They may also feel embarrassed trying to select safe foods at a restaurant and social event.
Before starting a gluten-free diet, always consult with a primary care provider first. Receiving proper nutrition guidance helps ensure nutrient needs are being met when following a gluten-free diet plan.
Gluten-Free Diet Plan from BistroMD
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Truly, never feel limited of gluten-free options, robbed of flavor, or deprived of nutrients!