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Is Gluten-Free Healthier?

By on September 12, 2014
Screen shot 2014 09 12 at 10.16.46 PM 300x336 - Is Gluten-Free Healthier?

Do the terms gluten-free, dairy-free, prebiotics and probiotics sound familiar to you? Are these nutrition claims something you now look for when shopping? If so, you have been exposed to one of the most explosive food trends in the 21st century relating to nutrition and digestive health. Other than a growing fad, digestive health issues are real and affect many individuals, ranging from children to older adults. According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (2014), an estimated 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders each year and numbers are continuing to grow. This makes digestive issues an emerging concern for many Canadians who are now looking for ways to proactively prevent, naturally alleviate and, or treat digestive problems. With 16 main digestive disorders, we have probably only heard a small fraction of them; namely from the very food trends that have cropped up in recent years like gluten-free diets and high pro- or prebiotic foods that have put a spotlight on celiac disease and constipation, respectively. But how much do we really know about digestive issues? This article will highlight celiac disease and some things you should know before committing to a gluten-free diet.

Celiac Disease

This is what started the whole gluten-free revolution that has now permeated groceries, specialty food stores, cafes and restaurants. Those with celiac disease cannot eat any gluten and avoidance of this ingredient is the key in managing a healthy lifestyle. Celiacs must be aware of hidden sources of gluten in hydrolyzed vegetables, malt, spelt, kamut and in some drug products. If unsure, it is best to be vigilant by reading the ingredients lists of food packages, calling up manufacturers to inquire about certain ingredients, doing more research online and even inquiring directly from a licensed health practitioner just to be safe.

Wheat, rye, triticale and barley contain gluten and can negatively affect the small intestines of celiacs via inflammation and damage of the villi (parts of the small intestine that absorb nutrients). Ultimately, the intestines will be unable to absorb needed nutrients like protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed for growth, repair and maintenance (Canadian Celiac Association). If you notice that you have adverse reactions to certain foods in your diet, it is best to visit your health care practitioner (e.g. a physician or a registered dietitian) to get tested for the proper diagnosis (e.g. blood screening, biopsies) and treatment. Sometimes it may not be celiac, but rather a non-celiac gluten sensitivity that can also occur. Research has also noted that if you have type 1 diabetes you may also be at an increased risk for celiac disease (Canadian Digestive Foundation, 2014).

Alternative Therapies

Some alternative natural remedies are available to treat inflammation if you noticed you are feeling unwell (either from gluten sensitivity or from other foods). Research has found that herbs like grounded flax, turmeric, nettles, black pepper, basil, cardamom, cayenne, chamomile, chive, cilantro, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and licorice all contain natural compounds that help reduce inflammation. However, before you head out to buy these supplements, do more research to make sure this is your best fit. Some herbal supplements may affect your current medications or health condition. It is best to speak to your doctor and registered dietitian about this before starting a herbal regimen.

Gluten is bad for you, right?

Despite the plethora of books, articles, reality and TV shows that have put a negative reputation on gluten, this ingredient is not bad for you. There is no sound scientific evidence pointing to the fact that gluten-free is better for your health (unless you are celiac). Being gluten-free does not automatically equate to good health (though you may feel really good [mentally] doing it). If you are still eating high amounts of fatty red meats, consuming a lot of processed foods with high amounts of sodium and sugar, and not eating your recommended daily intake of vegetables and fruits, you will still be unhealthy. Your weight may still be the same, if anything, it will go up.

The Gluten Replacers

Ultimately, starchy foods like potatoes, tapioca and corn replace your gluten-free diet but this may not bode well in the long-run. Starches like these can also promote inflammation as the body’s insulin levels go up. Fat can also be more readily deposited from this dietary change as well. Usually without gluten, food manufacturers use additional substitutions like fats, sugars and salt to make it taste and look good. This means your diet may also be higher in calories from the additional fat and carbohydrate content, not to mention the elevated sugar and sodium levels.

The Current Celiac Situation

To date there are no medically-proven treatments for celiac disease other than total avoidance of gluten in the diet. However, many individuals who live with celiac disease can live a normal, long and happy life by following a healthy diet that includes more vegetables, fruits, lean meats, healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and alternative plant-based proteins. The healthiest and easiest way to be gluten-free is to find products that have very little processing. This way, the foods you consume are natural and you can easily trace the ingredients to see whether they are free of gluten.

Having an active lifestyle is also encouraged and it can help you manage your health and weight goals, not to mention, you might feel more energized throughout your day from good exercise. Lastly, stay positive! Having celiac does not mean you cannot enjoy the pleasures of daily life. Take advantage of support groups to help you find new innovative and creative ways to take charge.

Check out these informative websites:

Canadian Celiac Association – http://www.celiac.ca/

Health Canada’s Information on Celiac Disease – http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/allerg/cel-coe/index-eng.php

GFCP’s Certified Gluten-Free Products Directory – http://www.glutenfreecert.com/consumers/certification-directory/


Canadian Celiac Association (2014). About Celiac Disease. Retrieved from http://www.celiac.ca/b/?page_id=882.

Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (2014). Digestive Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.cdhf.ca/en/home/.

Rosanna Lee, PHEc., MHSc., BASc. is a nutrition and health expert, a professional home economist and an avid foodie with diverse experiences in healthcare, community nutrition, industry, education, public health and research. Her areas of interest include nutrition education, health promotion and online communications, with specialization in social media. Rosanna’s work has been featured in Huffington Post Canada, Healthy Living Magazine, The Canadian Society of Nutrition Managers (CSNM) Magazine, The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, the Canadian Cancer Society and many others. She has a great passion for food, nutrition and health and loves to share and learn!

Connect with her online through LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/rosanna-lee/23/79b/1b3) or follow her on Facebook through Nutrition Central (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nutrition-Central/550145005071354?fref=nf).

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