By: Diadra Harnden, RD, College Park Family Care Center
Gluten free (GF) diets are hot these days—and touted to fix everything from digestive problems, to autism to ADHD to weight gain. Most of us know that a strict GF diet is the only treatment for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects about 1% of the US population. Gluten free diets can also be helpful for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a group of conditions that do not share the autoimmune markings of celiac but respond to the diet. But what about the rest of us…can a GF diet improve other conditions? What do you need to know before you go gluten free?
First of all, let’s clear up some of the confusion on GF diets:
- Are they safe? YES! Despite what you may have read, no major nutrient will be missing from a GF diet IF you include a wide variety of whole foods (defined as foods with minimal to no processing). Much of the health concerns over the GF diet are due to the use of processed gluten free foods, which are generally devoid of nutrients and unfortified. In contrast, a GF diet which includes chicken or fish, dairy, eggs, brown rice, sweet potatoes, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts and olive oil will have no problem meeting your nutritional needs. But don’t expect great health if all you eat is GF frozen pizza, crackers and cookies!
- Can GF diets improve other health conditions? A whole foods-based diet (GF or not) beats most typical American diets when it comes to promoting health. Studies show that whole food- based, less refined diets tend to be associated with better health outcomes. More research is needed to definitively say that specific health problems will respond to a GF diet.
- Is a GF diet a good weight loss diet? Not necessarily. In general, a whole foods-based diet tends to be more weight friendly than the standard processed American diet. But is eliminating the gluten the only reason for lower weights? It’s doubtful; the reason for weight loss is probably due more to the reduction of processed food (especially carbs).
So what do you need to know before going gluten free?
- If you have any symptoms that might indicate celiac disease—get tested first! It is very difficult to distinguish celiac disease from non-celiac gluten sensitivity once you have been off gluten for a period of time, as the antibodies disappear from the blood once gluten is stopped. Strict adherence to a GF diet is necessary in celiac disease, because a weekend “cheat” here and there can raise your risk of other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, anemia and even cancer. Ask your primary care physician about celiac testing if you experience frequent bloating, reflux, diarrhea or constipation, joint pain, frequent migraines or iron deficiency anemia. Family members of persons with celiac should also be tested, since the disease is genetic.
- Know your gluten free foods! Choose whole fresh meat, poultry or fish, eggs, nuts or cheeses. Gluten free starches include rice, quinoa, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and legumes. Fresh, canned or frozen vegetables and fruits without added ingredients are fine for a GF diet as well. Olive oil and butter, along with most single ingredient spices, herbs and salt can go a long way toward making a GF diet taste delicious. A multitude of GF recipes are available with a simple Google search.
- Use GF replacement products sparingly or for special treats. Many of these products are little more than refined starches and sugars held together with fat. Learning to rely on simply prepared, well -seasoned whole foods can be a delicious way to improve your health. If convenience is needed, consider the following easy GF ideas: hardboiled eggs, most lunch meats, cheeses, salsa and guacamole with cut vegetables or corn chips (be careful on the amount!), most plain popcorn, fruit, most yogurts (without added grains or toppings), olives, pickles and most nuts.
Can a GF diet be a healthful addition to your New Year’s resolutions? Maybe so—but make sure it’s done the right way!