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What Is a Gluten-Free Diet? Plan Tips, Benefits & More

A gluten-free diet plan has become a popular way of eating and some may even consider it to be a fad. But what is a gluten-free diet and are there benefits of following it? Find out here!

What Is a Gluten-Free Diet? Plan Tips, Benefits & More


A gluten-free diet is absolutely essential for those with celiac disease. Interestingly, though, the prevalence of celiac appears steady but followers of a gluten-free diet increase - and continue to do so. In fact, the number of Americans on a gluten-free diet has tripled between 2009 and 2014. 

A growing interest in a gluten-free diet could be due to a variety of factors, including the public perception that it may be healthier and promote weight loss and the growing availability of gluten-free products. Some may even self-diagnose as gluten intolerant or sensitive, therefore adopting a gluten-free diet. 

Despite the increased prevalence of going gluten-free, is it a safe diet plan to follow? Find out what a gluten-free diet entails and why and how to follow one. 

What Is a Gluten-Free Diet?

Gluten is the general name for the protein found in wheat, rye, barley. Crossbreeds of these grains, including triticale, also contain 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, a complete gluten food list includes 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. 

Gluten-Free Diet for Celiac Disease

The benefit of going gluten-free primarily relates to children and adults alike 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 people with celiac disease ingest gluten, the body presumes it to be "toxic". The reaction stimulates an immune system response and the small intestine is essentially attacked. Gluten-induced attacks can cause diarrhea, bloating, and other uncomfortable digestive issues.

Recurring attacks can damage the villi in the digestive lining or the small fingerlike projections that promote nutrition absorption. Eventually, this can result in a number of nutritional deficiencies and conditions, including: 

• Vitamin and mineral deficiencies 
• Anemia
• Malnutrition
• Lactose intolerance
• Osteoporosis, or bone loss
• Arthritis

At this time, following a gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Protecting the digestive lining by eliminating can help mitigate such risks and ultimately improve the quality of life.

Other Potential Gluten-Free Diet Benefits

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 of 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. The cause of IBS is unclear, though risks may include genetics and food sensitivities triggered by stress or environmental factors. 

Although structural damage is absent, people may experience symptoms similar to celiac disease. At this point in time, there is no cure for 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 with 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.

Patients with schizophrenia are suggested to 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 been 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. Following a gluten-free and low-calorie diet has been shown to improve fibromyalgia symptoms.

Autoimmune Disorders

Individuals with various autoimmune and inflammatory diseases may benefit from a gluten-free diet. For instance, an autoimmune thyroid disease is often accompanied by celiac disease, and ridding gluten shows positive outcomes. 

A connection between gluten and arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects the joints, also exists. 

Risks of Going Gluten-Free

Gluten-free diets are generally considered safe but can be risky without the proper guidance (tips on how to go gluten-free below). Potential risks include nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, cost, and stress.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Avoiding gluten-containing grains and related products naturally eliminates other essential nutrients from the diet, especially if not replenished from other sources. Wheat, barley, rye, and oats are 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 & Metabolic Health Risks

Taking to some gluten-free products can also lead to weight gain and prompt additional deficiency risk. For instance, some tend to attribute products labeled “gluten-free” as healthy. 

However, those gluten-free cookies are often still laden with refined sugar and oils. These products tend to supply empty calories and pose the risk for weight gain.

What's more, an inadequately balanced gluten-free diet can cause obesity, negatively affect glucose and lipid metabolism, and increase the risk of metabolic syndrome. 

Financial Costs 

Eating gluten-free can be cost-friendly but some "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 their 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. 

Restaurants and eateries continue to make strides in offering gluten-free menus and products. However, people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease may feel embarrassed trying to select safe foods when eating out. 

How to Go Gluten-Free with Ease

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. 

1. Seek Medical Care & Guidance

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.

Also involve a registered dietitian in the healthcare plan, particularly when it comes to adopting a gluten-free diet. Since gluten is found in many wholesome foods, cutting them out completely raises the risk of nutritional deficiencies. 

On the flip side, marketed gluten-free foods often come with a health halo - meaning they appear to be nutritious though lack nutritional value. This especially serves true to packaged gluten-free products like chips, crackers, and cookies. A dietitian can help prepare a personalized and balanced gluten-free diet plan.

Likewise attend check-ups to see how or if the diet is working, especially when just starting a gluten-free diet. A healthcare provider/team should then establish the frequency of check-ups and related tests, including checking bone density and anemia profiles.

2. Prepare the Kitchen

Especially if newly diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten-containing foods might be a kitchen staple. After learning which gluten foods should be avoided, take appropriate action depending on the present household situation. 

For instance, if a family member tolerates gluten, separate gluten-containing foods from gluten-free foods. Or to totally steer on the side of caution, remove them entirely. If completely ridding gluten from the house, consider donating to a food pantry, family member, neighbor, whoever to prevent food waste. Following the gluten separation or purge, stock the house with nutritious, gluten-free foods. 

Again, a dietitian can be helpful during this preparation process. They can provide guidance on how to avoid gluten cross-contamination and properly read food labels, in which most health authorities define gluten-free products as containing less than 20 parts per million gluten. 

Especially in the initial stages, a dietitian or another healthcare professional might encourage a food diary to keep track of food intake and potential symptoms as well. 

3. Look to Support

Following a gluten-free diet can be stressful and overwhelming, especially when first adopting this eating pattern. However, know countless resources are available to support and motivate a gluten-free journey.

Support can come in many forms, including online resources. Numerous celiac disease support groups are also available for kids, adults, and families. 

Turning to bistroMD's gluten-free meal delivery service can also ease any stress and worry! Ordering gluten-free meals takes out the guesswork of healthy eating and offers peace of mind. 

All meals are tested to the Food and Drug Administration gluten-free standard of 20 parts per million (ppm) or less. They also do not contain wheat, rye, barley, or their constitutes. Meals are also crafted with fresh, all-natural ingredients and combine the nutritional requirements of a gluten-free diet. Every bite taken is also proven to facilitate weight loss and sustain a healthy lifestyle.

Menus are completely customizable with numerous options to choose from. This means you will have no problem finding something delicious to satisfy your taste buds. Truly, never feel limited of gluten-free options, robbed of flavor, or deprived of nutrients!

Gluten-Free Diet Plan Recap

A gluten-free diet is one devoid of gluten, a protein naturally sourced in barley, rye, and wheat. Despite the popularity of a gluten-free diet, it is the only treatment to manage celiac disease at this time.

Especially in the initial stages, following a gluten-free diet might seem overwhelming and stressful. However, turning to professional guidance can ease worry and ensure a balanced and safe gluten-free diet to mitigate any health risks and improve quality of life.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on November 07, 2012. Updated on February 15, 2022.

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