The good and the bad of going gluten free

Paula Wolfson,

WASHINGTON – Being on a gluten-free diet used to mean essentially going on a “white foods” diet and eliminating processed and packaged foods.

Not anymore.

“Now we have a bit of a trap. Now it is easy to buy a lot of gluten-free junk food,” says nutritionist Monica Reinagel, who hosts the “Nutrition Diva” podcast.

It seems the gluten-free diet has gone mainstream, with a lot of otherwise healthy people signing on. As a result, manufacturers are producing gluten-free cookies, cakes, pastas and other products high in sugar, fat or sodium.

Reinagel recommends checking labels closely and shopping carefully.

“You can’t assume a food or a product is nutritious simply because it is gluten free,” Reinagel says.

Millions of Americans are sensitive to gluten, a protein found in wheat and certain other grains. Most suffer from a condition called celiac disease. When they eat gluten, it triggers an immune reaction that can ultimately damage the lining of the small intestine.

Celiac disease is not the same as a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance. But for all three the treatment is identical: a gluten-free diet.

Reinagel says a lot of people who can handle wheat go gluten-free anyway because they think it might help them lose a few pounds.

“If you are looking at a gluten-free diet as an easy solution for weight loss, I have to disappoint you, there is no guarantee that a gluten-free diet is going to lead to weight loss.”

In April, teen actress Miley Cyrus took some heat for encouraging everyone to go gluten free for a week, saying “The change in your skin, phyisical (sic) and mental health is amazing! U won’t go back!”

There is no evidence of significant health benefits from going gluten-free other than treating celiac disease or related gluten intolerance.

Reinagel says it is certainly possible to have a healthy diet that doesn’t include wheat.

“You can’t just assume ‘Oh, it is gluten free, it must be good for me,'” she says.

Another problem is that gluten-free products are often lower in fiber than those made with wheat. Reinagel suggests looking for products that include whole grains, and supplement with other sources of fiber, such as fruits and vegetables.

Reinagel offers helpful tips and links in her Nutrition Diva column on the Quick and Dirty Tips blog.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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