Following a gluten-free diet used to be a dreaded challenge faced only by people who had celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Now gluten-free products are easy to find and going gluten-free has become a diet option for anyone. But it’s not always the best choice. If you’re not careful about your food selections, a gluten-free diet may lack essential nutrients.
Undiagnosed Celiac Disease
Gluten proteins in wheat, rye and barley trigger an autoimmune response in people with celiac disease. Following a gluten-free diet relieves celiac-related symptoms. However, a medical professional should make such a diagnosis. Deciding to go gluten-free can be risky. You might not be as strict about avoiding sources and forms of gluten as you must be. If you have celiac disease, eating even a small amount of gluten damages your intestines, resulting in health problems throughout your body. Undiagnosed celiac disease also can increase your risk of osteoporosis and thyroid disease. If you experience bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, joint pain or a skin rash, consult your doctor.
Going gluten-free has a nutritional impact, but whether it’s good or bad depends on which substitutes you choose. Some prepared gluten-free products are not enriched with vitamins and minerals. This is a special concern for women who might become pregnant. Folate prevents certain birth defects in developing babies, and foods enriched with folate are a significant source of this essential nutrient. The type of flour used to replace wheat flour also makes a difference. Brown-rice flour contains about the same nutrients as whole-wheat flour, but white-rice flour has two to five times less of all the essential nutrients, including fiber.
Wheat naturally contains resistant starches that aren’t found in most gluten-free replacements. One of wheat's resistant starches -- inulin -- is a type of fiber that increases the amount of healthy bacteria in your large intestine. It also might help reduce the levels of glucose in your blood. Studies have not yet determined the impact of a gluten-free diet on your gut, but wheat is a major source of resistant starches, so you might need to increase fiber from other sources. Gluten also could affect your cardiovascular health. The “Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics” reports that higher intakes of gluten protein may lower levels of triglycerides in your bloodstream.
If you eliminate gluten-containing cookies and baked goods and you don’t replace them with gluten-free sweets, you might lose weight because of the reduced calories. Otherwise, a gluten-free diet alone will not help you achieve a lower weight. Many gluten-free flour substitutes have more calories than wheat-based foods. One cup of white-rice flour has 578 calories and brown-rice flour has 574 calories. By comparison, the same portion of whole-wheat flour contains 408 calories and all-purpose flour has 455 calories. The “Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics” reports that as of December 2012, no studies had shown that a gluten-free diet reduces weight, whether you have celiac disease or not.
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.