Is Gluten-Free Really Better For You?

gluten-free oatmeal

According to The Gluten-Free Agency, the target market for gluten-free products is 44 million consumers. Market research firm Nielsen estimated that sales of products with a gluten-free label have doubled in the past four years, rising from $11.5 billion to more than $23 billion. Gluten-free sales in U.S. supermarkets has already exceeded $5.5 million, with projected sales of $7.6 million by the year 2020. The statistics go on and on...

However, one interesting stat that has caught our attention is the fact that 20% of people polled about why they've chosen the gluten-free lifestyle responded that they are NOT suffering from celiac, IBS or any type of gluten intolerance. They simply want to "feel healthier".

This begs the question: is gluten-free really healthier for you, or is it just a perception?

Going gluten-free is necessary for a relatively small percentage of the population. For the others, it's a choice. Assuming you aren't one of the 7% who are gluten-intolerant, should you be jumping on the bandwagon?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Gluten and Inflammation

Dr. Amy Myers, founder of the Austin UltraHealth Clinic states "Do you have Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Multiple Sclerosis, or any other autoimmune disease? If so, I can say without a doubt that gluten sparked the flame of your disease, and continuing to eat it is simply adding fuel to the fire".

For those who have not been diagnosed, here's something to think about: according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, an estimated 99 percent of people with gluten sensitivity are undiagnosed, so they are fanning the flames of their inflammation without even knowing it.

Research shows that gluten has been linked to inflammation and autoimmune disease. As a primary cause of leaky gut, it starts the chain reaction in which toxins, microbes and food particles release into the bloodstream. This triggers the immune system's inflammatory response, designed to get rid of them. An immune system that is constantly triggering in response to what it perceives to be invaders will inevitably start taking innocent casualties--what rheumatologists call "friendly fire".

The result of this is a host of conditions know as autoimmune disease. Literally fed by gluten (and possibly other factors), the immune system attacks the body's own cells, causing organ and tissue damage over the long term. If left untreated, autoimmune disease can lead to organ failure and premature death.

And the other side of the coin?

Gluten Benefits

For people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential. But for others, says Dr. Peter Green of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, "unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber,"

Going gluten-free means saying no to many common and nutritious foods. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten also shows up in many whole grain foods related to wheat, including bulgur, farro, kamut, spelt, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits. But the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They’re rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fiber. Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Choosing gluten-free foods has another drawback. Most gluten-free alternatives, such as pasta and bread, are significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. It is not unusual for consumers to pay twice as much for comparable gluten-free foods.

The bottom line? If you have celiac disease or IBS, avoid gluten completely. If you think you may have a problem with gluten, get tested. If you have symptoms related to autoimmune disease, get bloodwork done that includes an ANA panel. If you are healthy in general but are concerned about the effect that gluten might be having on your body, then go ahead and try the gluten-free diet--but do so with caution. Make sure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs to thrive.

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