Gluten-free not the cure-all for a healthy diet

 

DOVER –– Although bread, pasta and other starchy foods are daily staples, millions of Americans are unable to enjoy them due to an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine called celiac disease.

Individuals with celiac disease have a negative reaction to gluten, a protein found in many grains like wheat, barley, oat and rye.

“Celiac disease is an immune response where the blood produces antibodies in response to gluten which is found in many foods,” said Dr. Harry Anagnostakos, a gastroenterologist at Beebe Gastroenterology in Lewes.

The immune response can cause inflammation in the digestive system and result in an inability to absorb nutrients causing anemia and various vitamin deficiencies.

Symptoms of celiac disease can range from abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea to non-specific symptoms like fatigue or an inability to gain weight.

“The bottom line is that if you’re experiencing unusual symptoms, go to your family doctor who can run tests to see what the problem is,” Dr. Anagnostakos said. “Especially with non-specific symptoms, celiac disease probably isn’t something that would come to mind as the cause of the symptoms.”

The test for celiac disease is a simple blood test which detects the antibodies produced in response to gluten.

In most cases, celiac disease is identified in early childhood but can develop at any point if there is a genetic predisposition for the disease.

“It’s important to get tested at the early onset of symptoms because one of the biggest risks that individuals with celiac disease face is an increased risk of cancer in the small intestine,” Dr. Anagnostakos said. “So the sooner we can get the patient on a gluten-free diet, the better off they’ll be.”

A strict gluten-free diet is the only remedy for celiac disease which can be difficult because gluten is in many processed foods. It’s commonly used as a thickener for baked goods and the addition on gluten gives foods a chewier texture.

“It can be very difficult because gluten can be in pretty much anything including many medications,” Dr. Anagnostakos said. “Even some foods labeled gluten-free, due to regulations that allow trace levels of gluten, may not be totally gluten-free, so I promote a diet that includes mostly natural, unprocessed and fresh foods.”

Dr. Anagnostakos has seen cases of mis-self-diagnosis by people who believe they have celiac disease but my have a gluten intolerance.

“The test is the only way to find out for sure,” he said. “If someone has only an intolerance or sensitivity, their body won’t produce the antibodies that are characteristic of celiac disease.”

But there is a flip side to the test that leaves individuals with celiac disease undiagnosed.

“The problem with the blood test is that if you do have celiac disease and you’ve cut out gluten from your diet by self-diagnosis, the test will come back negative because your body isn’t producing the antibodies,” Beebe clinical dietitian Lourie Cherundolo said.

But many people have recently cut out gluten as part of a health trend.

Those who’ve jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon may just hear about the recent unpopularity of gluten and figure it’s the cause of their digestion problems, inability to lose weight or sluggishness.

“Gluten-free has attained a fad-like status recently and it’s not because it’s bad for everyone,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “Many people are looking for an answer for why they aren’t feeling good and right now, gluten is the thing to blame. People are looking at it like it’s the root of all evil.”

Although about one in 100 people has celiac disease and up to one in 50 have a sensitivity to gluten, many of those who have cut out gluten without the advice of a doctor and seen a benefit may not have ever been affected by gluten at all.

“It’s not uncommon for those who think they have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance to actually have a wheat allergy so they may be skipping out on foods that are actually okay for them and losing some important B vitamins doing it,” Ms. Cherundolo said. “That’s why it’s important to visit a medical professional to determine the cause of any problems you’re having.”

But if you do have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, it’s possible to still eat a healthy diet.

“Just like vegetarians or vegans, people who have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant can still get all the nutrients they need through a well-planned diet which a nutritionist can help with,” she said.

But many grocery stores and restaurants now have gluten-free options, which can make dining and meal planning a little easier.

So although there are millions of individuals who are negatively affected by consuming gluten, cutting it out isn’t a cure-all for everyone. The best way to address your symptoms and develop a healthy plan is to consult a health professional.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.