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Should everyone go gluten free?

A nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center regularly provides a guest post. This week, Shanti Lewis weighs in on gluten-free diets.

Have you walked in the grocery store lately and seen a plethora of products labeled "gluten-free?" Do you think that gluten free is a means to help you lose weight or improve your health? Here's what you need to know.

What is gluten?

Gluten refers to a protein composite found in wheat, barley and rye. Some people suffer from celiac disease where they have an autoimmune reaction to gluten. They may experience stomach pain, diarrhea, weight loss and chronic inflammation of the intestines when consuming gluten-containing foods. While celiac disease was once thought to be rare, recent studies show that 1 in 133 Americans may be affected. In addition, numerous Americans may suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity where they experience many of the same gastrointestinal complications of celiac disease, but do not experience damage to the intestines from chronic inflammation.

The Food and Drug Administration has not finalized gluten-free food labeling regulations. As a result, consumers may feel confused by products, such as gluten-free water, and may opt to choose gluten free products that are more expensive but add little nutritional value.

Over the past year, numerous celebrities have credited the gluten-free diet for helping them have more energy and decreasing belly bloat. Also, a "gluten-free" diet has been credited to cure fibromyalgia, fatigue and migraines. Claims that a "gluten-free" diet is a cure to numerous aliments are mostly anecdotal with the exception of individuals with true gluten insensitivity and celiac disease since no long-term studies can confirm such a connection exists. Many people believe that following a "gluten-free" diet can lead to quick weight loss, however, they fail to realize that substituting products for gluten-free versions may limit variety in their diet and lead to potential nutrient deficiencies in B vitamins, iron and folate if these products are not fortified. In addition, food manufacturers may increase the amount of sugar or fat in their "gluten-free" versions of processed foods to make their products taste better.

Should you follow gluten-free diet?

The answer is yes for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. By following a gluten-free diet, the average American will likely have to make major adjustments in their diet since gluten is often added as a thickener to different seasonings and condiments and is present in all products that contain wheat, barley or rye. While being more conscious of food choices is an advantage of the gluten-free diet, there is potential risk of nutrient deficiencies when vitamin-enriched whole grain foods are removed from the diet. Avoiding highly processed foods and choosing more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low fat dairy, nuts and gluten-free grains, such as quinoa can be a healthy diet for those suffering from gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Rather than focusing on gluten-free, the average American should work toward limiting processed foods and choosing a variety of vegetables, lean proteins, low fat dairy products, unsalted nuts, beans, vegetables and whole grains as a health goal in 2013. If you are experiencing chronic diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue or anemia and may be concerned that you cannot tolerate gluten, you should contact your health care provider. For more information on the gluten-free diet and hints on reading labels, consider checking out the Celiac Disease Foundation website (www.celiac.org) or celiac.com website (www.celiac.com).

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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