Should you go gluten-free? May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month

April 30, 2015
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URBANA, Ill. – Many people adopt radical eating patterns—green-foods-only diets, juice diets, no-sugar diets, and gluten-free diets—in hopes of a quick weight fix. Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in the past decade, but do they actually do more harm than good?

“Unless there is a medical need, researchers say that removing gluten from the diet may not result in weight loss. Gluten-free foods often contain a higher amount of fat and carbohydrates so they are higher in calories,” said Lisa Peterson, a University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.

Eliminating gluten unnecessarily can cause deficiencies in nutrients such as folate, magnesium, calcium, iron, fiber, zinc, and B-complex vitamins, she added.

“However, people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity need to follow a strict gluten-free diet. It’s the only treatment,” Peterson explained.

May is National Celiac Disease Awareness month, she added. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy defines celiac disease as an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption when gluten is consumed. People with a gluten sensitivity may experience symptoms that are similar to celiac disease, but they do not experience digestive damage or develop other long-term health complications.

“Gluten is a protein found not only in wheat, but in rye, barley, and triticale, a wheat-barley hybrid, as well. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, it damages the villi, small hair-like projections in the small intestine that help with nutrient absorption,” she said.

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease and symptoms can vary, Peterson said.

“Symptoms for celiac disease could include weight loss, joint pain, tiredness, anemia, rashes, and other gastrointestinal discomfort such as nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting,” she noted.

Undiagnosed celiac disease can lead to long-term health effects, including malnutrition, infertility, nervous system disorders, early-onset osteoporosis, and gastrointestinal cancers. Diagnosis can be made through a blood test and an endoscopy in which a small sample of the small intestine is taken for testing, she said. 

Individuals with celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet to allow their small intestine to heal and reduce the risk of long-term health effects, she added.

“Read food labels to make thoughtful food choices. Products labeled certified gluten-free contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. And, keep in mind, just because a product is labeled wheat-free does not guarantee that it is gluten-free. Don’t be afraid to contact the product manufacturers with questions,” Peterson advised.

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