Should You Go Gluten Free?

If you're like the majority of the population, then no.

Is gluten-free necessary?

For most, this is not toxic. (Photo via Thinkstock.)

From the way that gluten free foods have popped up in every corner of the supermarket these days, anyone who buys groceries now is almost guaranteed to run across something, somewhere with “gluten free” plastered across the package. Gluten free diets are being hailed as a way to lose weight, improve complexion, and increase energy — it’s essentially the new celebrity diet, and it’s no wonder that a growing part of the general population has started to eliminate gluten from their diets. But what does gluten-free mean and should everyone follow this restriction?

There are multiple, valid reasons why someone might be prescribed a gluten free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that can cause a severe reaction in people with celiac disease or in those with a wheat allergy. It’s estimated that approximately one in 133 Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease and that number is on the rise. Now, however, according to a study published in BMC Medicine, there is new evidence that some people might have a gluten sensitivity, but not celiac disease. Although the research is preliminary, the thought is that these gluten-sensitive individuals could experience an immune response to the ingestion of gluten, with symptoms that vary from abdominal discomfort to headache and fatigue.

Gluten sensitivity isn’t clearly defined though, so it’s difficult to properly diagnose. Despite this, some estimates say up to 17 million Americans are gluten sensitive — a number that was just questioned by a pair of Italian doctors in a recent commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine, where they emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing gluten sensitivity and/or celiac disease before anyone voluntarily cuts it out. For most of the population, gluten needs not to be seen as toxic, they say, because, it isn’t for most people — and going on a gluten-free diet can be complicated and expensive.

What’s more, if you eliminate gluten from your diet without cause, you might be avoiding an important source of whole grains and the essential vitamins and minerals they supply. However, you can find whole grains outside of traditional wheats that don’t have gluten and can help fill the gap — like amaranth, quinoa, millet, and wild rice — but they’re usually less accessible and pricier. Additionally, gluten can be found in everything from condiments and salad dressing to cereal and frozen dinners, so anyone cutting it out of their diet has to spend some serious time reading the ingredients label.

A lot more studies are needed before anyone can really define the term “gluten sensitivity,” and until then, people who think they might have a gluten sensitivity should be tested for celiac disease first and then work with their physician and dietitian to adjust their diet from there. A proper diagnosis will help in justifying the need for following such a restricted diet before anyone starts unnecessarily eliminating gluten from their diet.