Bread may be considered the staff of life, but for people striving to live gluten-free, many forms of bread – as well as cookies, pastries and pasta – are to be avoided.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a wheat-rye cross) that helps bread rise, holds it together and makes it chewy.
These days, you’ll find many products on store shelves labeled as gluten-free, which may make you wonder whether you should switch to a gluten-free diet.
Some people need to avoid gluten because they have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that prevents their bodies from digesting proteins found in gluten. For those people, foods made with gluten can cause abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, skin rashes and other conditions.
By some estimates, about 1 percent of people have celiac disease. Up to 13 percent of the population may be sensitive to gluten and find that consuming it makes them feel poorly. But nearly 20 percent of the population – one in five people – have adopted a gluten-free diet. In many cases, people go gluten-free in hopes of losing weight or improving their health.
Not always necessary
While switching to a gluten-free diet may result in those benefits, it’s not necessarily because people have stopped eating gluten, but because they’ve also cut out a lot of highly processed foods from their diet.
“For most people, it’s not necessary to cut gluten from your diet to better manage your weight or improve your health,” says Tidelands Health registered dietitian Salem Zeglin. “Rather than focus on eliminating gluten, it’s often better – and more sustainable – to focus on reducing the amount of processed food you are consuming.”
Zeglin is part of a team of registered dietitians at Tidelands Health, our region’s leading health care provider, who help patients reach their health goals by developing customized plans strategies that align with each person’s health needs and objectives.
She cautions that gluten-free food isn’t necessarily healthier than its counterparts. In some cases, gluten-free options contain more sugar and fat to improve taste.
Plus, by going gluten free, you risk missing out on important nutrients.
“Some foods you remove from your diet by going gluten-free, such as those that contain whole grains, offer nutrients that help with rebuilding our cells, fighting off infections and maintaining normal nerve function. And they also contain iron that helps oxygenate our cells,” says Zeglin.
Focus on diet
Unless you have a medical need to eliminate gluten from your diet, Zeglin says it’s better to focus on a diet built around minimally processed, whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins.
“I encourage people to shop around the perimeter of the grocery store first- filling your cart with minimally processed foods, she says. Then go through the middle aisles where you can find additional health-promoting foods such as nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains.”
If you have questions about your dietary needs or are interested in making significant changes to you diet, be sure to consult with a physician or a registered dietitian.