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Gluten-free diets don't always live up to the hype

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Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disorder, celiac disease, or have been following social media accounts that claim going gluten-free is a magic pill for weight loss, the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet vary.

Before you embark on a gluten-free lifestyle, it’s worth gaining an understanding of the many facets of gluten to determine if going gluten-free — beyond medical necessity — truly subtracts from your waistline or just your bank account. Indeed, foods labeled as gluten-free often demand a higher price in the grocery store aisles. Moreover, while food companies and food chains have been attempting to add gluten-free foods to their lineups in the last few years, gluten-free food products can be unpalatable.

Diagnostics Are Essential
When someone is diagnosed with celiac disease, eliminating gluten from his or her diet is an integral part of the treatment protocol. Celiac disease is often triggered by an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley or rye grains. Celiac disease is believed to affect less than 1 percent of all adults. For people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet is considered medical nutritional therapy and is the only definitive way to improve symptoms and prevent future health problems.

However, other health disorders may cause gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity. For example, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), also referred to as gluten sensitivity or non-celiac wheat sensitivity, is a disorder that has yet to be defined diagnostically. Unlike celiac disease, NCGS does not have diagnostic tests; however, studies have shown that limiting or avoiding gluten intake for those affected can help alleviate the symptoms.

It is crucial to understand that wheat has several other proteins capable of causing allergic reactions similar to that of gluten, therefore in this case, avoiding wheat may be the solution, in addition to gluten.

Gluten-Free Just Because
Shopping for gluten-free foods at a health food store has become a type of status indication for some. They’re part of the hip crowd. However, unless you are medically diagnosed and must remove gluten (that 1 percent), excluding gluten from your diet provides no significant benefits based on research findings.

Avoiding gluten means more than giving up traditional breads, cereals, pasta, pizza and beer. Gluten is commonly added to products such as frozen vegetables and meals with sauces or soy sauce, foods made with “natural flavorings,” vitamin and mineral supplements, certain over-the-counter and prescription medications, and some toothpaste. This makes following a gluten-free diet extremely challenging. Further, many packaged foods claiming to be gluten-free are no different than processed foods.
While gluten can cause digestive disorders, mood disorders, weight gain and neurological problems, going gluten-free may not be a one-size-fits-all treatment. It is essential to understand that the food industry uses ingredients such as fats, sugars and gluten for purposes outside of enhancing taste, mainly to increase product shelf life.

For example, a low-carb food sold at the store might be higher in transfat, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Similarly, a fat-free food can be loaded with sugars or artificial sweeteners. Likewise, when it comes to packaged gluten-free goods, these can be nothing more than processed, sugary junk foods sold under the pretext of “healthy” gluten-free choices. Because of this, there are other ingredients beyond gluten that may be the root cause of an issue. Oftentimes, those who jump on the gluten-free train, without being diagnosed with a health concern requiring them to give up gluten, end up gaining more weight and feeling worse than they did before.

When someone decides to embark on a gluten-free journey, it is important to bear in mind that whole grains are a rich source of fiber and certain nutrients, therefore following a gluten-free diet should be done under the supervision of a health professional to avoid development of nutritional deficiencies, especially in pregnant and lactating women.

Gluten Free The Right Way
There is some method to the madness of going gluten-free. Here are some simple yet effective steps to get the most results from your gluten-free practices without falling prey to false health claims:

• Health reform does not start with the government: It starts in your kitchen. Food is the true medicine, therefore, whether your diet of choice is gluten-free, low-carb or low-fat, cooking food at home ensures you avoid additives and hidden ingredients, and don’t unintentionally consume unhealthy sugars, fats and sodium.

• If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If the label claims the cookies are “gluten-free,” “sugar-free” or “fat-free,” chances are these foods are loaded with empty calories that can highjack your brain chemistry and leave you in a vicious cycle of cravings and increased risk for inflammation. The resolution is simple: Look to nature for foods that are truly “gluten-free” such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, lentils, eggs, fish and lean meats.

• Don’t be a well-fed, malnourished person. While, you may be eating sufficient quantities of food, nutritionally if your food habits consist of eating store-bought, precooked meals, frozen entrees and packaged foods, you are nutritionally malnourished. Going gluten-free without the addition of foods rich in iron, calcium, folate, magnesium, zinc and vitamins B, D, and C can leave you dealing with a weakened immune system, prone to developing chronic and acute disorders. If going gluten-free, replenish nutrients and fiber traditionally found in grains.

• According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers can choose to use the label “gluten-free” on their products if the item meets the conditions listed below, therefore understanding labels is crucial.

• It is inherently gluten-free, like fruits.

• It does not have ingredients that contain or are derived from a gluten-containing grain.

• It contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten, as in foods where the gluten is partially removed.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet is helpful for anyone without celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. If going gluten-free is a part of your diet plan, opting for “label-free” foods will ensure a fail-proof gluten-free lifestyle, which includes but is not limited to fruits, lean proteins, vegetables and healthy fats.

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