Things to consider before starting a gluten-free diet

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gluten-free bread

By Tracy Turner | Ohio State Chow Line

“I am thinking about removing gluten from my diet. Is there anything that I need to consider before making that decision?”

Yes. An important thing to consider before going gluten-free is the question of why you want to make that change.

Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. It also appears in many processed foods.

There is often a medical reason — such as wheat allergy, celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity — why a person must follow a gluten-free diet, said Shannon Carter, educator, family and consumer sciences, Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

However, some people have adopted a gluten-free diet because they believe it has health benefits, including weight loss.

“While there is evidence to show that a gluten-free diet can help diminish symptoms associated with certain autoimmune diseases such as dermatitis herpetiformis, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, thyroiditis, and psoriasis, there is no evidence to support gluten-free health claims for the general population,” Carter said in Gluten-Free Eating: Important Considerations, a recent Ohioline fact sheet.

Ohioline is OSU Extension’s free online information resource and can be found at ohioline.osu.edu.

Some people who are on a gluten-free diet do not need to be, she said.

“The likelihood of weight loss on a gluten-free diet depends on how a person eliminates gluten,” Carter said. “Avoiding processed foods and refined carbohydrates like bread, crackers, and pasta and replacing them with whole grains will reduce extra calories and increase fiber.

“Gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthy. Gluten is found in foods that are part of a healthy diet, which contributes nutrients and fiber.”

Main considerations

Carter offers these points to consider when deciding to go gluten-free:

  • Be sure to consult a doctor before going gluten-free, since diagnostic tests require active gluten consumption in order to be accurate. A gluten-free diet cannot replace a formal consultation, diagnosis, or recommendation from a physician.
  • Talk with a dietitian to understand how a gluten-free diet plays an important role in managing gluten-related disorders. Gluten-free diets might require careful monitoring to ensure a healthy and adequate balance of nutrients and fiber.
  • If you will be the only gluten-free person in your household, will you prepare separate gluten-containing food for others? Will you have adequate space for storing and preparing gluten-free food separately from food containing gluten?
  • Purchasing or preparing food for a gluten-free diet might take more time. While many grocery stores have a wide variety of gluten-free foods, some products might only be available at specialty stores.
  • When eating away from home, you might need to prepare food to take with you. When eating out, you must check with the restaurant and inquire about the menu and possible sources of cross-contact, which is when gluten-free food comes into contact with food or surfaces where gluten has been present.
  • Gluten-free substitutes are usually more expensive. One research study by the National Institutes of Health found that gluten-free foods cost almost 2 1/2 times more than regular products.

Reintroducing gluten

If you have been gluten-free and decide it’s no longer for you — and you do not have a medical reason to avoid gluten — Carter says to be careful when reintroducing gluten back into your diet.

“Do so in sparing amounts, as your body might have difficulty digesting gluten and fructan, a highly fermentable component in wheat,” she said. “When medical diagnoses provide a solid motive for avoiding gluten, the gluten-free diet is inevitable. If eliminating gluten is merely a dietary preference, this decision deserves some careful consideration.”

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

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