May 8th, 2013

Nutrition: Is Gluten-Free Living Necessary for Everyone?

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Photo courtesy of Andrea Nguyen

Celiac disease is no joke. About 1% of the population has celiac disease and some experts believe that up to 10% of people have gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which one cannot digest gluten, a waxy protein, found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats. An easy acronym to remember is: “W-BRO.”

While celiac disease can’t be cured, its symptoms can be controlled through a gluten-free diet. If one does not completely avoid gluten, the autoimmune response damages the small intestine, which slowly loses the ability to absorb the nutrients in food and can cause long-term malnutrition and other complications. Some symptoms include stomach discomfort or pain, bloating, pale, foul-smelling stools, unintentional weight loss and fatigue.

If you don’t have celiac disease, wheat is not inherently bad for you. However many people have adopted a gluten-free diet, swearing it helps with weight loss. Many products made with wheat can be low in nutrition or just plain bad for you. Eliminating them from your diet may indeed result in weight loss. But rather than restricting your diet so severely, make healthier choices. Opt for whole grains and limit your cookie and pastry intake. 

Whole grains have been a staple of the human diet since early civilizations. Asia and India are known for their rice, United States for its corn and South America for its quinoa. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrition, as they contain essential enzymes, dietary fiber, iron, vitamin E and B-complex vitamins. In addition, their high fiber content helps slow down digestion and consequently provides long-lasting energy. 

Below are a few gluten-free grains that taste great, are incredibly versatile and have a high nutrient content:

  • Quinoa
  • Rice (wild or brown)
  • Amaranth
  • Arrowroot
  • Teff
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat (aka Kasha) 

Do you think you may be sensitive to gluten? An elimination diet can help you identify specific food sensitivities that trigger digestive discomfort. Eliminate wheat for two to three weeks and note whether your symptoms resolve. Gradually reintroduce wheat back into your diet, preferably under the supervision of a health care provider who can help monitor your symptoms. 

What should you do when eating out in the big city?

  • Plan ahead and look up the menu beforehand to review your options.
  • New York restaurants are catering more and more to gluten-free diners, so feel free to ask your server about gluten-free menu items.
  • Ask for dressings and sauces on the side, or skip them completely. Vinaigrette is usually a safe gluten-free option.
  • Stay away from breaded appetizers and entrées as well as fried foods which may have been fried with gluten.
  • Remember, wheat free does NOT mean gluten free! 

During celiac awareness month, learn more about celiac disease and the gluten-free diet from reliable sources:

Celiac Disease Foundation 

Gluten Intolerance Group of North America - contains guides to restaurants serving gluten free foods, gluten free brands

Gluten Free Mall - an online source for gluten free foods

Gluten Free Living - a magazine dedicated to living a gluten-free life

Gluten Free Drugs - a list of medications that contain gluten

Celiac Sprue Association  

Written by Alanna Cabrero, MS, RD

Edited by TCabrarr

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