Many people have cut gluten out of their diets because they know it causes them health problems, including digestive discomfort. Those with celiac disease can’t eat it at all — while other people believe going gluten-free is simply a healthier way of living.
“For some reason gluten-free is associated with healthy, but oftentimes it is not. If a person is cutting out gluten, they’re cutting out a whole food group,” said one expert.
Many people “are using the diet as a way of losing weight … It’s a low-carb diet in disguise. Avoiding gluten is avoiding carbs. It’s automatically creating a lower calorie diet,” said Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. It helps foods maintain their shape — acting as a glue that holds food together. Pastas, breads, some baked goods, and cereals all get tossed out.
But the trend has a lot of families cutting out their weekly plate of spaghetti, bowl of cereal, or pizza perhaps unnecessarily for their kids — not because they’re gluten intolerant or need it removed from their diets, but “just because.” And that could create more problems than what it was intended to solve.
A recent commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests going gluten-free for no particular reason can be especially harmful for children.
In her book “The Gluten-Free Diet in Children: Do the Risks Outweigh the Benefits?” Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, writes, “Out of concern for their children’s health, parents sometimes place their children on a gluten-free diet in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent celiac disease (CD), or is a healthy alternative without prior testing for CD or consultation with a dietitian.”
Reilly states that without a verified diagnosis of CD or wheat allergy, however, a gluten-free diet in children could actually increase fat and calorie intake, contribute to nutritional deficiencies, and obscure an actual diagnosis of CD. She cites a study of 1,500 Americans in 2015 that found “no reason” was the most common explanation for choosing gluten-free foods, among the reasons for her concerns.
Voluntarily cutting gluten from a child’s diet means that child is missing out on nutrients and minerals that gluten is full of, such as B vitamins, magnesium and iron, Jakubczak told LifeZette. Without these, children may experience development and growth problems.
Going gluten-free completely is something Jakubczak discourages her clients from doing if they don’t have to. She explains the reality of a gluten-free diet: constipation, fatigue, and a low immune system, especially in children. She otherwise tries to help families add other grains and sources of fiber to make up for deficits if they believe that this is a diet they need to stay on.
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She also points out that because gluten-free is so popular now and a lot of foods don’t have the ingredient anymore, these foods are processed and low in nutrients — neither of which is good for weight loss.
People with a gluten allergy or celiac disease, which is more severe, must steer clear of gluten in their diet because the body’s immune system attacks the protein as if it were a foreign body. This can make people extremely sick and damage the digestive system.
Samantha Bortniker, 23, of New York, New York, is one of those people. She realized she was sensitive to gluten when she began having stomachaches.
“Before cutting out gluten, I had a ton of stomachaches and constantly felt sick and uncomfortable,” Bortniker said. Now, she avoids gluten, but still maintains a healthy, well-balanced diet to make sure she doesn’t miss out on nutrients.
“For some reason gluten-free is associated with healthy, but it is oftentimes not. If a person is cutting out gluten, they are cutting out a whole food group. Most grains have gluten in them. They’re cutting out this very large, very nutritious food group,” Jakubczak said.
Meanwhile, on a related note — those living with celiac disease are encouraged to get vaccinated against pneumonia, according to a new study from the U.K. “There is some evidence that in some patients with untreated celiac disease the spleen does not work as well, which is important in fighting certain infections,” Colin Crooks, a lead author of the study, told Reuters Health.
It is estimated that one in 100 people worldwide suffer from celiac disease. Crooks said that when people with celiac go on a gluten-free diet, their spleen function tends to improve, helping them fight off infections.