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Is a gluten-free diet for you?

Posted on by Sadiya Cheshty, MD

 

Gluten-free is the latest buzz in diets, and it’s a must for anyone who has celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder of the intestinal tract. If you don't have this digestive problem, however, you may be losing out on essential nutrients by going gluten-free.

Why avoid gluten?

Gluten is a protein in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley that helps dough keep its shape. If you have celiac disease, you can’t tolerate gluten, and you must avoid it or risk major gastrointestinal upset and other symptoms.

Celiac disease is not an allergy; it is an autoimmune disease in which the intestinal wall is inflamed and damaged as a result of eating gluten. This interferes with your ability to absorb nutrients.

Symptoms of the condition include diarrhea, stomach upset, boating, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Celiac disease also causes constipation and anemia.

Celiac disease affects about 1 percent of the population. More than 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease.

A gluten-free diet is for life

Removing gluten from your diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. It alleviates the unpleasant symptoms, and allows your intestine to repair itself. Avoiding gluten also helps you ward off a rare type of cancer of the intestine.

You'll have to remain on this diet for the rest of your life. Eating any gluten at all can damage your intestine.

A gluten-free diet requires your commitment. Not only must you stay away from bread and pasta, you must carefully read food labels when you’re shopping. Gluten shows up in foods such as salad dressings and even beer, and it’s also used as a thickener. Always ask about the ingredients of a dish before ordering when eating at a restaurant.

If you think you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, a less severe condition, your first step should be to see a doctor to get tested. It’s important to be tested before you start any gluten-free diet to make sure the results are accurate and to rule out any other cause for your symptoms.

Gluten-free isn’t healthy for everyone

While a gluten-free diet is essential if you have celiac disease, experts say you shouldn’t follow it unless it’s medically necessary.

Helped by high-profile celebrities who say they’ve lost weight on the diets, the regimen is becoming popular among people who want to lose weight, boost their energy, and get rid of bloating.

But there’s no evidence that eating gluten-free is healthy for everyone, and it can cause deficiencies in several nutrients, such as iron, vitamin B12, and magnesium, unless the nutrients are properly supplemented. If you have celiac disease, you need to work with your healthcare provider to identify and treat nutritional deficiencies.

 | Regional GI

Sadiya Cheshty, MD, is a gastroenterologist with Regional GI and the digestive health director at the Women’s Specialty Center. Dr. Cheshty’s areas of special interest include women’s health, hepatitis, nutrition, and endoscopic ultrasound. Education: Medical School—State University of New York, Downstate School of Medicine; Residency—North Shore University Hospital—NYU School of Medicine; Fellowship—Loyola University Medical Center—Stritch School of Medicine.

 
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