Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and sometimes in contaminated grains, such as oats (possibly cross-contaminated by being processed on the same equipment as gluten-containing grains). People with celiac disease must adhere to a lifelong gluten-free diet to avoid serious medical complications. Inadvertently consuming even a tiny amount of gluten can cause abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting or chronic diarrhea. Long-term complications from undiagnosed and untreated celiac disease can include fatigue, stunted growth, osteoporosis, anemia or infertility.
Food manufacturers have picked up on the gluten-free trend and are hurriedly churning out more products to keep up with the escalating demand. In the past, people looking for gluten-free items had to visit special health food stores. Gluten-free foods used to be few and far between, but now even mainstream supermarkets (including Wal-Mart) are expanding their selection of these trendy items. While celiac disease affects less than 1% of the population, it is estimated that 15-25% of people want to buy gluten-free foods. In fact, sales of gluten-free foods in the U.S. more than doubled since 2005, now topping $1.5 billion.
However, going gluten-free could have a downside in that there are several nutrient deficiencies that are common among people following this diet. The American Dietetic Association concludes that, "adherence to the gluten-free dietary pattern may result in a diet that is high in fat and low in carbohydrates and fiber, as well as low in iron, folate, niacin, vitamin B-12, calcium, phosphorus and zinc." This is largely attributed to the fact that diet is so restrictive and most gluten-free foods are made from refined flours (stripped of many important nutrients during the refining process). Therefore, people with celiac disease need be sure to eat enough whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, such as brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth or millet-- or choose products that are enriched to ensure nutritional adequacy.
While newly-diagnosed celiac patients may appear thin, it's likely due to months, possibly even years, of nutrient malabsorption caused by their disease. Once these patients' gastrointestinal tracts heal, they tend to gain back any weight they had lost. In fact, some patients who embark on a gluten-free diet find that they unintentionally gain weight because manufacturers of gluten-free foods tend to add fat and sugar to improve their flavor and this increases the calorie content.
Of course, if you experience the symptoms associated with celiac disease, talk to your physician. Since it is estimated that 1 in 133 people has the disease, it is important that we increase awareness to ensure that those with celiac disease are diagnosed early enough to make the dietary changes necessary to live a full, healthy life.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.