Nutrition

What’s the Deal with Gluten-Free Foods?

Question Mark Photo Credit: Steven Goodwin

Perhaps you’ve noticed many items in the grocery store now have the words “gluten-free” on their labels, or “gluten-free” menu options appearing at your favorite restaurant.  Gluten-free foods seem to be everywhere lately, and gluten-free diets have developed a reputation for being an all-around healthier way to eat (helped along by numerous celebrity endorsements).  But what is gluten, and is there really a reason to avoid it?

Gluten is a protein found naturally in wheat, barley and rye.  It helps give breads and other baked goods their chewy texture, and can sometimes be used to thicken sauces and soups.  Most of us can eat products containing gluten with no problems.  For some people, though, eating foods containing gluten can lead to serious health concerns.  People with celiac, an autoimmune disease affecting a small portion of the population, are gluten intolerant.  Eating even a small amount of gluten causes a reaction in the body that damages the small intestine so that it is unable to absorb nutrients in food.  According to the American Diabetes Association, about 10% of people with Type 1 Diabetes also have celiac.

There are also some people who have gluten sensitivity, meaning they experience unpleasant reactions to eating gluten (gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc.) but do not have the damage to the small intestine associated with celiac.  Only a medical professional can diagnose celiac (it requires a blood test and a biopsy of the intestine).  If you have any questions or concerns, it’s best to talk with your health care provider.

So should you start eating gluten-free?  Well if you have celiac, a gluten-free diet is mandatory and a nutritionist can help create an eating plan that works for you.  If you don’t have any type of gluten sensitivity, then there’s really no reason to spend the extra money on gluten-free foods.  Just because an item is gluten-free, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier – in fact some products can be higher in calories and fat (and lower in some nutrients like fiber) than similar products containing gluten.   A diet emphasizing fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy while limiting packaged and processed foods will serve you well.  Just make sure you’re watching your portion size!

(Content reviewed by MGH Nutrition Department. Photo credit: Steven Goodwin)

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