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Gluten Free Diets

The latest health food fad is to go gluten free. What does this mean and how can it help you?

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Gluten is currently one of the alternative health industry's favorite bogeyman. There's so much alarm about it that restaurants are offering gluten-free menus. Supermarkets have whole gluten-free food sections. 5 years ago, consumers had never heard of gluten-free and we all seemed to do just fine. Is this stuff really so bad?

Gluten is not a fat or a carbohydrate; it's a protein. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. It's an important source of dietary protein; it's even added to a lot of food to boost their protein content. In fact, most vegetarian meat and cheese substitutes are based on wheat gluten. Gluten is a long, tough molecule, and it's what gives modern bread dough its sponginess and elasticity.

But there's been a growing trend in recent years to view gluten in a negative light. It is true that a small number of people are born with gluten sensitivities that reduce their ability to tolerate it to varying degrees. Something of a non-sequitur line of reasoning has followed, that if some people can't tolerate it, it therefore must be generally bad for everyone.

There are actually only a tiny number of people who have to avoid gluten, basically those with celiac disease, in which gluten causes an inflammation of the tissues in your gut that interfere with your ability to absorb nutrients from food. Very few people actually have this, but as the gluten-free fad has grown in recent years, a huge number of alternative practitioners are telling people they have it. Don't believe the health food store guy; go to a doctor and get a blood test or a biopsy. It's unlikely that you actually have this, but a few do.

A somewhat larger number of people have any of various wheat-related allergies. These are not necessarily a reason to avoid gluten. Most people with such allergies don't even realize they have them and do just fine; most of the rest can use common allergy treatments and continue eating a normal diet.

Yet those whose business is the sale of gluten free products would often have us believe that many more of us should buy them. Don't. For healthy people, they're a waste of money. Eat a balanced diet, low in fat, and get some exercise. That's a prescription that no flash-in-the-pan fad diet can hope to match.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Berne, A. "The Accidental Vegetarian: Chefs have no beef with mock meat." San Francisco Chronicle. 19 Sep. 2007, Newspaper.

Elder, J.H., Shankar, M., Shuster, J., Theriaque, D., Burns, S., Sherrill, L. "The gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism: results of a preliminary double blind clinical trial." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 1 Mar. 2006, Volume 36, Number 3: 413-420.

Herbert, J., Sharp, I., Gaudiano, B. "Separating Fact from Fiction in the Etiology and Treatment of Autism: A Scientific Review of the Evidence." Quackwatch. Stephen Barrett, M.D., 13 Jun. 2003. Web. 31 Dec. 2010. <>

IWGA. "Wheat Gluten Applications." International Wheat Gluten Association. International Wheat Gluten Association, 16 Jul. 2004. Web. 31 Dec. 2010. <>

Layton, L. "3 years after deadline, FDA still hasn’t defined 'gluten-free'." Washington Post. 28 Apr. 2011, Newspaper.

Rewers, M. "Epidemiology of Celiac Disease: What Are the Prevalence, Incidence, and Progression of Celiac Disease?" Gastroenterology. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 128, Number 4, Supplement 1: 47-51.


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