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Gluten-Free: The Help Versus the Hype

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So many people I know have climbed aboard the gluten-free bandwagon, some because of gastro-intestinal issues (bloating, gas, so-called wheat belly) and others who have found that cutting back on gluten has helped them with skin and other health problems.

None of these people were diagnosed with celiac disease, most of the people I know who are now gluten-free are women. Some have switched to gluten-free because their naturopaths or nutritionists recommended they try it, some because eliminating gluten made them feel better, and a good number (like maybe two-thirds of them) because they equate gluten-free with weight loss.

"Free from" products have exploded in the marketplace and even local bakeries are offering gluten-free loaves made from potato or rice flours. A day doesn't go by where gluten-free isn't a lifestyle story in some newspaper or magazine.

Among the media, at least, there seems to be a gluten-free preoccupation -- a glut of stories on gluten-free as lifestyle choice. Add "evidence" from Hollywood stars (Rachel Weisz, Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus are among those who have claimed its powers) that gluten-free cures everything from gas to headaches and it's hard to figure out what's real in this emerging gluten-free world.

That's why I like these two recent takes on the issue: They separate the helpful from the hype.

Catherine Cross, who wrote last week in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) at , says that the gluten-free industry is healthy alright -- but that not all gluten-free foods are. "The market for gluten-free products is booming, and there have never been more food options for people who avoid the grain protein for health reasons," she wrote. But the descriptive "gluten-free" is also increasingly used by retailers trying to exploit the trend.

People with celiac disease buy these products for their health, of course, but many people who do not have gastro-intestinal/allergen/food sensitivity issues believe that going gluten-free will help them lose weight or belly fat. Dietitians, I am told, tell weight-loss clients that gluten-free does not mean automatic weight loss: gluten-free baking often uses more fat and sugar, and many gluten-free flours such as tapioca, potato and rice are actually higher on the glycemic index than wheat. It's not just carbs these dieters shun, but carbs containing gluten proteins like in wheat.

In fact "gluten-free" is Canada's top restaurant menu health claim, the CMAJ's Cross wrote, but that does not mean that all the so-called gluten-free menu foods you can find today are healthy. As an example, she mentions a pizza restaurant where the gluten-free crust has more calories, sugar and salt than the regular crust. That may be okay if gluten-free is your only interest, but not if overall health is your goal. Some gluten-free food items have more calories, more fat, more sodium and more sugar than regular non-gluten items.

If I were interested in a gluten-free diet for whatever reason, I would check out the Canadian Celiac Association. One of the points they make is that some foods that claim themselves as gluten-free actually may be manufactured in a facility where other foods with gluten are made, so there's cross-contamination issue to think about too. I found the best information on gluten-free, where, with one click, you access dozens of food brands that have been given a sort of "stamp of approval" by the association. All this goes to show that gluten-free is not as easy as just avoiding bread.

Here's an interesting thing, too: Over the past few weeks MedPage Today, a U.S. medical news service, asked readers if the attention to gluten was real or just a fad. In tabulating the over 5,000 responses found that gluten intolerance is a real issue, but that mainstream media attention to all things gluten-free is just a fad.

Among the comments: The genetic alteration of wheat crops may have affected people who "otherwise might not have been sensitive." (True enough!) And a comment from one gluten-sensitive diner who noted that awareness around the issue has helped her in that she no longer gets a "blank stare" from waiters when she asks about gluten-free.

My takeaway from all the above is that gluten-free awareness is great as are the increasing number of "free from" products and restaurant menu choices. But gluten-free diets for those not diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are mostly hype -- until proven not.

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