I LOVE when patients ask me if they should be GLUTEN-FREE. Why? Because the gluten-free diet is inherently healthy (if you do it without searching out the elusive gluten-free twinkies) and because I have been following a GF diet for about seven years, so I have far more personal opinions and advice about this diet than your average non-GF doc.
Who NEEDS to be Gluten-Free? People with Celiac Disease. Anyone with this autoimmune disorder needs to COMPLETELY avoid gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If they do eat gluten, their body basically overreacts and the inflammatory response in their gut damages the gut lining, which blocks absorption of important minerals and vitamins. Untreated celiac disease can lead to multiple complications, including anemia, a skin disorder called dermatitis herpetiformis, autoimmune disorders, neurological problems and some cancers.
Who MIGHT be helped from a gluten-free diet? People with autoimmune disorders. Gluten is pro-inflammatory, which means that it can stir up an overactive immune system by irritating the gut lining and triggering a whole body response, sort of poking the giant. With autoimmune diseases, the problem comes from too much immune response (too much inflammation) creating swollen joints, rashes, etc. The general concept is that if you remove gluten, that is one less thing to provoke your overactive system.
My most important advice about the GF diet: emphasize the natural foods that are gluten free- fruits, vegetables and protein sources (nuts, meats, fish, eggs, etc). If all you do is substitute the GF version of every bread, pasta, pizza, cookie, cake and twinkie for those things in your diet now, then yes, you will be GF but not necessarily healthy. And from the mental/emotional aspect, sometimes that’s the easiest way to start GF without feeling deprived. But why not have those GF alternatives in moderation, while emphasizing the healthy wonder that is the colorful world of veggies and fruits? Your body will thank you for it.
Do I still seek out the best GF treats like pizza, calamari and brownies? You bet! Am I excited to find Udi’s newest delicious GF multigrain bread? Of course! But my dietary GOAL remains focusing on more vegetables and fruits, always paired with a protein source.
BOTTOM LINE: Gluten-free diets are necessary for people with celiac disease, probably good for those with autoimmune disorders, and healthy for all of us as long as we “go natural.”