STYLE

Gluten-free goes mainstream, but expert cautions against adopting food fad on a whim

06/25/2012 11:30 EDT | Updated 08/25/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Clara Cohen may covet croissants and go bonkers for baguettes, but she's given them up in pursuit of good health.

Joining a growing number of Canadians experimenting with the latest in nutritional trends, Cohen has gone gluten-free and plans to stay that way.

But as the diet — used to treat celiac disease — morphs into a movement of sorts, some experts caution against mistaking a medically required lifestyle for a food fad.

For her part, Cohen says going gluten-free has so far been a good thing.

The Port Moody, B.C., resident says focusing on fresh foods and avoiding gluten-free versions of processed products has resulted in weight loss, clearer skin and reduced bloating. She says it's also eliminated monthly migraines.

"The gluten-free thing, for me it's fascinating," said the 45-year-old acupuncturist, who changed her eating habits last August after hearing about the purported benefits of the diet.

"I wasn’t really expecting much. But I think it really helped."

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune condition that damages the gastrointestinal tract and hinders the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Sufferers react badly to gluten, the protein component that gives elasticity to dough and is found in foods made with wheat, rye, barley and their derivatives.

Symptoms of the disease, which affects one in 100 people, include cramps, constipation, diarrhea, anemia, bone pain and migraines. Experts say the variety of warning signs mean the disease, which can only be confirmed with a blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine, is underdiagnosed.

And some say they are concerned about the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet, fearing it could cause cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivities to go unnoticed for even longer.

Gluten, and the damage it inflicts on those who react badly to it, needs to be present in a person's gut when tests are run, explains Shelley Case, a Regina-based registered dietician who sits on the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association.

Allowing the disease to go undiagnosed can lead to more serious conditions like thyroid disease, cancer of the gut and arthritis.

"It's really important that people actually go get tested for celiac, because if you go on the gluten-free diet because it's the latest buzz then it's almost impossible to get an accurate diagnosis," said Case.

For those who aren't medically required to eliminate gluten, the long-term perks of the popular diet are being questioned.

"If you don't have celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there's really no benefit to cutting out whole grains," said Case, who emphasized the benefits of a balanced diet filled with natural foods.

Anecdotes on the benefits of going gluten-free, however, are easy to find and Case acknowledges that if done right, the change in eating habits could trigger weight loss.

"If you cut out bagels and pizza and cookies and muffins, you're eliminating a lot of concentrated calories. And if you're starting to eat more fruits, vegetables, lean meat, people are going to be eating healthier," said Case.

“But it's not the gluten that’s causing the weight gain, it is in fact that they’ve reduced a lot of the high calorie foods.

"Not everyone loses weight by going gluten-free," she warned. Those who flock to gluten-free versions of bread, pasta or brownies can actual gain a few pounds.

"People need to know that most of the gluten-free processed products are much higher in calories due to more fat and sugar in them," Case said, adding that such products also lack some of the vitamins and minerals their regular counterparts are enriched with.

Still, the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet is undeniable.

"It is going gangbusters," said Ottawa-based nutritionist Kathy Smart, who has written a book on gluten-free living.

"It is amazing how many people are contacting me about gluten-free menus, recipes, and it’s people who don't have celiac disease. It's really getting mainstream."

The spike in interest seems driven by a growing belief that many wheat products available today are far too modified and processed, said Smart.

"More people are going gluten-free just to see how they feel," she added.

"The impact of eliminating gluten from the diet, even for non-celiac people is increased energy, sleeping better at night, less brain fog and a lot of people experience weight loss."

The key to success, said Smart, is staying away from packages with a gluten-free label and focusing instead on fresh food.

"Just because it says gluten-free on the box doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you," she said. "Going gluten free is going back to basics."

Ultimately though, the gluten-free diet appears to be something that works or doesn't on an individual basis.

Gillian Brown learned that first-hand. The 24-year-old Toronto wellness consultant chose to experiment with the gluten-free diet in May. Unlike some others, her body didn't feel much of an effect, but the experience deepened her understanding of dietary choices.

"Physically I didn't notice a huge difference," she said. "But I’m a lot more conscious of the amount of gluten that I eat now."

For Brown, the biggest lesson was an appreciation of the challenges facing those who have to live gluten-free not by choice, but by necessity.

"My experience was just stepping into a person’s shoes when they have to eat gluten-free and the limitations they experience on a daily basis," she said. "It’s made me a lot more compassionate for people with certain dietary restrictions."

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