Everywhere you go, every time you turn on the TV, or whenever you browse through your social media newsfeeds, you probably see the words “gluten-free diet” being discussed. It seems to be a new trend in the diet world. A lot of people misconstrue this diet, thinking that’s a quick way to weight loss. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Though some may use the gluten-free diet as a way to lose weight, for those who have celiac disease, it’s not just a fad; it’s a necessity. In fact, to date, it’s the only form of treatment available for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. It can also be beneficial for people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Gluten-Free Diet Defined
The most basic definition of a gluten-free diet is that it is a diet that does not contain any type of gluten.
Gluten is a type of protein that’s found in grains, such as barley, rye, and wheat, as well as triticale, a hybrid blend of rye and wheat. This protein allows foods that contain these grains to retain its shape. As the name suggests, it is kind of like naturally occurring glue.
There are a lot of foods that contain gluten, including items that you might not expect. For that reason, it is always important for anyone who has celiac disease, a sensitivity to gluten, or who is trying to eat a gluten-free diet to check food labels. Gluten is often found in the following food items:
- Baked goods
- Salad dressings
- Sauces (soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and many others)
- Food coloring
While a gluten-free diet is the only way to manage the symptoms that are associated with celiac disease, people who have a non-celiac related gluten sensitivity can also benefit from this diet. Those who aren’t affected by gluten have also taken interest in this type of diet, as they want to take advantage of the supposed benefits that it offers. Some of the claimed benefits of the gluten-free diet include weight loss, improved energy levels, and better health overall. However, the majority of the clinical studies that have been conducted to examine the effects of the gluten-free diet have only been done on individuals who have celiac disease. As such, there is little clinical evidence that proves the health benefits of this diet on those without this condition exists.
Eliminating gluten from your diet can decrease your intake of vital nutrients, including fiber and some vitamins. That’s why it is important to be aware of how this diet can impact your nutritional needs, no matter why you are planning on following this diet.
What is Celiac Disease?
Since the primary purpose of the gluten-free diet is to ease the symptoms that are associated with celiac disease, let’s give you an overview of this condition.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. Those who have this condition are genetically predisposed to it, and the side effects can be serious. When people who have celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system views the protein as an invader and attacks the small intestine. Attacks can damage the villi, which are tiny projections that are shaped like fingers and line the small intestine. The purpose of villi is to aid in the absorption of nutrients, so when they become damaged, the body can’t properly absorb nutrients.
Celiac disease is a hereditary condition.
Effects of Celiac Disease
Celiac disease can occur at any age. If it isn’t treated, this condition can cause serious health complications, such as:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Herpetiformis, an itchy rash
- Cancers of the intestines, such as intestinal lymphoma
- Lactose intolerance
- Severe nutritional deficiencies
The older a person is when he or she develops celiac disease, the greater the risk of developing another autoimmune disease will be.
Signs and Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Celiac disease isn’t a one-size-fits-all illness. In other words, the effects vary from person-to-person, which makes it tricky to diagnose this condition. Currently, more than 200 symptoms have been identified. Some people may have several symptoms, while others might have none, yet test positive for the celiac disease. Still others might have a negative blood test, but a biopsy of the intestines will come back positive for celiac.
Children and adults are often affected by celiac disease differently. In children, symptoms are usually associated with the digestive tract, while adults usually don’t experience digestive symptoms.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Children
- Bloating and pain in the abdominal region
- Chronic diarrhea
- Behavioral issues
- Stunted growth
- Delayed start of puberty
- Weight loss
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Adults
- Pain in the joints or bones
- Excessive fatigue
- Anemia caused by iron deficiency
- Bone loss (osteoporosis)
- Peripheral neuropathy (pain, numbness, or tingling in the feet and hands)
- Mouth sores
Three Types of Celiac Disease: Classical, Non-Classical, and Silent
There are three different forms of celiac disease, which include classical, non-classical, and silent.
- Classical. Patients exhibit signs of malabsorption, such as chronic diarrhea, weight loss, or fatty and foul-smelling stools.
- Non– Patients may exhibit slight gastrointestinal symptoms, yet don’t have definite signs of malabsorption.
- Silent. Patients are asymptomatic.
What is Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten intolerance, also referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a wheat-related disorder. In other words, patients exhibit signs and symptoms that are similar to those of celiac disease, but they are two different conditions.
For patients with celiac disease, their immune systems attack the intestines whenever they consume gluten. This condition only occurs in people who are genetically predisposed to it, and certain genes have been linked to the condition. However, the cause of gluten intolerance is unknown and researchers aren’t sure why it happens.
Symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
The symptoms that are associated with gluten intolerance develop after a person eats something that contains wheat. Some of the most common symptoms patients might experience include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal pain
- A general feeling of being unwell
Other symptoms that patients may experience, but are less common, include:
- Pain in the stomach (pain that is more specific than abdominal pain)
- Brain fog
- Mental confusion
- Pain in the muscles or joints
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek the advice of a medical professional. While they could indicate gluten intolerance, there are several other conditions that have similar side effects.
Diagnosing a Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance
In order for a non-celiac gluten sensitivity to be diagnosed, a medical professional will first rule out a more serious health condition. Next, they will investigate the signs and symptoms you are experiencing. They’ll ask about the symptoms you are having to determine if they are similar to those that are associated with a gluten intolerance.
Tests will also be conducted, including:
- Blood tests. During a blood test, doctors will test for certain antibodies. If those antibodies are not present, the issue probably isn’t celiac disease.
- A biopsy. A small sample will be taken from the lining of the intestine. If any damage is found, the symptoms are likely associated with celiac disease.
Testing is completed while the patient continues to eat gluten, as this allows doctors to determine whether or not the symptoms are linked to this protein.
What Causes Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance?
Though medical researchers have defined the reason why symptoms associated with celiac disease occur, they are not yet sure what causes the symptoms that are associated with gluten intolerance.
Health Benefits of Eating a Gluten-Free Diet
Whether you are going to convert to a gluten-free diet because you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or to ease the symptoms of a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or you simply want to improve your overall health and well-being, this diet can provide numerous benefits.
Besides easing the symptoms that are associated with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, some of the benefits of a gluten-free diet include:
- Reduced symptoms associated with chronic gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Chron’s diease.
- Weight loss
- Improved energy levels
- An improvement in the way you feel overall
Moreover, a gluten-free diet can help you avoid eating processed foods. Why? – Because many processed foods contain high amounts of gluten. In addition, these foods are comprised of artificial flavors and chemicals, which can cause serious health issues. While on a gluten-free diet, people tend to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat because there are several non-starchy options available that are completely free of gluten. When you eat more fruits and vegetables, you increase the amount of vital nutrients you are ingesting, thus improving your overall health.
By only eating foods that are free of gluten, you will also reduce the amount of unhealthy oils and carbohydrates you are consuming, which will also improve your overall health and may aid in weight loss.
Removing gluten from your diet can reduce the risk of developing some serious health conditions, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Certain types of cancer
The Risks of A Gluten-Free Diet
While a gluten-free diet can provide a wealth of health benefits, there are some risks associated with only eating foods that do not contain gluten. These risks can affect both people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as those who do not have any adverse reaction to gluten but just want to improve their health.
For those who have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, the greatest risk associated with a gluten-free diet is not reading labels. Since gluten has become such a trend in the diet world, many companies are marketing foods as “gluten-free”, but in reality, they contain gluten-based ingredients. Therefore, you may be eating foods that you believe are free of gluten, but could end up having adverse reactions. For that reason, always make sure you read all food labels. Sticking to natural foods is the best way to avoid any problems.
For people who do not have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, other concerns of eating a gluten-free diet exists. The risks can include:
- Nutritional deficiencies. Since many foods that contain gluten are fortified with vitamins and minerals, if you aren’t properly balancing your diet, you could be missing out on vital nutrients, such as iron and vitamin B. Make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet of nutrient dense foods, or take a multivitamin to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
- Gut problems. Though a gluten-free diet can help ease gastrointestinal problems for those who cannot digest gluten, for those who can, going gluten-free can actually cause issues in the GI tract. A lot of foods that contain gluten also contain fiber, which helps to regulate your system. To avoid constipation and other tummy troubles, eat plenty of non-gluten, fiber-rich foods, such as nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies. You can also take a fiber supplement.
Healthy Alternatives to Gluten
We already discussed foods that you should avoid on a gluten-free diet; but, what gluten free foods can you safely eat while ensuring you are getting plenty of nutrients? Below are some options that you should consider adding to your non-gluten diet:
- Whole eggs
- Almond flour
- Leafy greens
- Coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Brown rice
The list of non-processed, gluten-free foods that are healthy for you is virtually endless.
If done right, consuming a gluten-free diet, even if you don’t have an issue with the protein, can provide you with numerous health benefits. Just remember to be smart, read labels, and eat a variety of unprocessed, naturally gluten-free foods.