02/16/2015 01:55 EST | Updated 04/17/2015 05:59 EDT

Going Gluten-Free by Choice Is Not Always a Good Idea

'Gluten Free' appears on the packaging for General Mills Inc. Betty Crocker brand cake mix displayed for sale at a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is issuing a final rule to define the term 'gluten-free' when voluntarily used in food labeling, according to a notice published in the Aug. 5 Federal Register. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are plenty of people who must avoid gluten for health reasons. But there are also many who only follow a gluten-free diet because that's the message they are given in the media, from daytime TV shows to celebrity endorsements.

The rapidly growing popularity of wheat-free and gluten-free food products over the past few years is not necessarily an indication that an ever-larger part of the population is actually suffering from food sensitivities like celiac disease, wheat allergies, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It just means that there is now a greater awareness that such intolerances indeed exist and that diet restrictions can be helpful in easing the symptoms.

People with celiac disease have an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. If you carry the disease and eat gluten, it will trigger an autoimmune response that inflames and damages the lining of your small intestine, which can make it harder to absorb nutrients and potentially lead to nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, and even cancer, says Dr. Sue Shepherd, who teaches dietetics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and who has developed a line of gluten-free foods.

A strict gluten-free diet is the only recognized treatment for celiac disease at this point. Even in the absence of obvious symptoms, sufferers from the disease must adhere to the required dietary restrictions for life, she says.

There are also other intolerances based on allergies to a protein in grains such as wheat that is not gluten, she adds, some of which are developed at a young age. Abdominal pain, distension, constipation, diarrhea, or excessive gas can be caused by an inability to break down a group of naturally occurring sugars called FODMAPS (fermentable oligo-, di- and mono-saccharides, and polyols), she explains. A low FODMAP diet can provide relief, but it is important to consult with your physician first, she says, before you change your diet, since the symptoms can be similar to other sensitivities.

Also, celiac disease and IBS can be difficult to diagnose because they affect individuals differently, showing severe symptoms in some, or none at all in others.

What's important to know for those who decide to cut back on grain-based foods or take up a gluten-free diet regimen by choice, not by necessity, is that grains, especially whole grains, provide a host of essential nutrients that the body shouldn't be deprived of.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating more whole grains can decrease the risk of death, particularly from heart disease, by 15 per cent. Much of the benefits come from the bran, the fibrous coating that is unfortunately removed by food manufacturers in the processing and refining of wheat and rice. Higher bran intake alone was linked in the study with up to 20 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

People are mistaken if they think of a gluten-free, wheat-free diet as healthy eating, warns Dr. Shepherd. Many food items that happen to be free of gluten are nutritionally deficient, and people who observe these diet restrictions lack some of the most essential nutrients, including fibre, folate, vitamin A, magnesium, calcium, and iron.

So if you choose to eliminate certain foods or food groups for whatever reason, it matters greatly that you still diversify your diet as much as possible to make up for the losses you inevitably incur.

Food and Health by Timi Gustafson R.D.