Breaking Down Food Fads: The Gluten-Free Diet

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE May 1, 2019Pearls of Wisdom Blog

Gluten is one of the most popular food topics in recent years. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye grains. A Consumer Reports survey from 2014 found that 63% of Americans believe a gluten-free diet would improve their physical or mental health, and about one third of people buy gluten-free products or try to avoid gluten. The gluten-free product market was valued at about 4.72 billion in 2017.

Let’s do some digging to learn more about the gluten-free diet.

What is a gluten-free diet?

 A gluten-free diet is free of foods, products, and ingredients that contain gluten, such as wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten-free foods and grains such as amaranth, corn, legumes, potatoes, quinoa, rice, and seeds are used as substitutes.

Who can benefit from a gluten-free diet?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which gluten triggers damage to the small intestine. For people with celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet  improves gastrointestinal and neurological health, protects bone density, decreases nutrient malabsorption (iron, calcium, B vitamins), and improves quality of life. By decreasing damage to the intestinal tract, a gluten-free diet also decreases the risk of cancer for people with celiac disease.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, only one in 141 Americans have celiac disease.

Some people may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Research on NCGS is still ongoing. People with NCGS have similar symptoms to people with celiac disease such as abdominal pain, but the small intestine is not damaged. People with NCGS often report less gastrointestinal discomfort and improved food tolerance on a gluten-free diet, but so far, there is no evidence that it reduces their cancer risk.

If your doctor or registered dietitian has recommended a gluten-free diet for you, click here for a sample gluten-free meal plan.

How does gluten affect cancer risk for people without celiac disease?

For people who do not have celiac disease, research shows no cancer protection from avoiding gluten.

Whole grains contain fiber and other important nutrients that fuel and protect the body. Studies show that the more whole grains a person eats, including foods with gluten, the lower the risk for most cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon cancer.

What are the disadvantages of a gluten-free diet?

Avoiding gluten limits food choices. The gluten-free products often cost more than the foods with gluten that they are meant to replace.

By excluding many whole grains, a gluten-free diet may not provide enough key nutrients such as folate, carbohydrates, iron, niacin, zinc and fiber which can affect immunity and overall health.

Although many Americans try the gluten-free diet for weight loss, there is no evidence that supports following this diet for weight loss. Gluten-free products are not low-calorie. In fact, some gluten-free products contain more calories and refined grains than the products with gluten that they replace.

Talk to your doctor and registered dietitian about your nutritional needs during cancer treatment.

When you have digestive issues and food sensitivities during cancer treatment, work with your doctor and registered dietitian to manage these side effects. Talk to your healthcare team before eliminating gluten or any other foods from your menu.

Your food intake and nutrient absorption is crucial for the best outcome from your cancer treatment. If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, work with your doctor and registered dietitian to create an eating plan that addresses all your needs.

Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

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