You’ve heard the success stories on TV. You’ve seen the celebrity endorsements. You might even know someone who’s tried it and can’t say enough good things about it.
I’m speaking, of course, about the gluten-free diet. And I’m here to tell you, before you commit to trying out this “new” diet that seems to be all the rage… not so fast! You’re about to make a very serious commitment, and there are a few things you need to know before you hop on the gluten-free bandwagon. (I only wish someone had told me what I was getting into when I decided to make the change.)
For many people — about 1 in 133 Americans — going gluten-free is truly a life-changing experience. Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can cause a†wide range of complications and symptoms, including persistent digestive issues, skin rashes, hormonal problems, depression or anxiety, and even chronic pain. Once treated with a gluten-free diet, these health issues largely vanish.
But for most people, that’s just not the case. And in fact, in many cases the “benefits” of the gluten-free diet for ordinary people have been grossly exaggerated. Let’s start by busting the major myth you’ve probably heard all over the media lately…
1. The truth is you probably arenít going to lose weight on a gluten-free diet.
Itís not impossible, of course — some people do lose weight when they make the switch. Thatís because a damaged digestive system and chronic inflammation can actually make people with celiac overweight.
But for the 90-95% of people who have no problem processing gluten, itís not going to make a big difference. In fact, because so many commercial gluten-free goods are higher in carbs and lower in fiber than their conventional counterparts, lots of people actually gain weight after adopting a gluten-free lifestyle.
2. You may be giving up an accurate diagnosis if you go gluten-free without a doctorís supervision.
If you suspect you may have celiac disease, you really should talk to a doctor before going gluten-free if at all possible. That’s because the blood tests most doctors use to screen for celiac are only accurate if youíre actively consuming gluten on a regular basis. Not only that, but the biopsy a gastroenterologist will perform to look for celiac-related intestinal damage requires you to consume gluten for at least 6 weeks before the test.
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, if I seem to improve on a gluten-free diet, I’ll just go back on gluten to have the testing done.” The problem is that usually doesn’t work. Most people with a gluten intolerance actually become more sensitive to gluten once theyíre not constantly being bombarded with it. That means that after being gluten-free for a few months, it can be impossible to go back on a normal diet long enough to get an accurate diagnosis – it may simply make you too sick.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned medical professionals just don’t know much about celiac disease, and may tell you just to “give it a try” instead of testing you. It happened to me. I’m 99% sure I have celiac (between my symptoms and family history) but I’ll never know for sure because my doctors screwed up. Please learn from my mistakes and insist on being tested first.
3. Thereís a difference between celiac and gluten sensitivity.
Itís also possible to have a condition called ďgluten sensitivity,Ē which doesnít cause the extensive intestinal damage normally seen with celiac. It does cause similar digestive symptoms, which improve when the patient introduces a gluten-free diet. In the case of gluten sensitivity, the patientís response to a gluten-free diet is the diagnosis. But itís important to rule out the more serious complications that come with celiac disease before trying to resolve your symptoms by cutting out gluten.
4. You canít ďcheatĒ if youíre truly gluten intolerant.
Itís important to realize that a gluten-free diet isnít the same as a weight-loss diet — itís okay to slip up and eat fast food sometimes if youíre trying to eat healthy meals, but being ďmostlyĒ gluten-free isnít good enough. Thatís because gluten-free isnít a fad if you have celiac; itís a medical treatment.
If you actually have celiac, a single breadcrumb can contain enough gluten to cause damage to your small intestine. (Yes, I mean that literally.) And it can take weeks or months for such damage to completely heal, causing unpleasant ongoing symptoms and potentially causing malnutrition in the meantime.
Of course, most people who have a reaction to gluten wonít be tempted to cheat once they realize how much better they feel on the GF diet. When even a bite of wheat bread can land you trapped in the bathroom for the rest of the day, you overcome your cravings for familiar comfort foods pretty quickly.
Photo credit: Moyann Brenn via Flickr
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