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Ask a Dietitian: What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?

by Katie Snyder - UCO Dietetic Student

Q: What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?

A: Gluten has recently become a very popular health topic. This protein, found in wheat, barley and rye can have serious side affects on certain people, specifically those suffering from celiac disease. Currently it is known that celiac disease affects one out of every 133 people. Celiac disease is commonly thought to be a food allergy but it is actually an autoimmune disorder.

In an individual with celiac disease an autoimmune response occurs when gluten is ingested. This autoimmune response attacks and damages the villi (small hair-like projections) of the small intestine that help with nutrient absorption. When the villi have been damaged, digestion becomes impaired. Individuals with celiac disease greatly benefit from a gluten-free diet.

Once gluten is removed from the diet the swelling in the intestine will subside within several weeks, some individuals even feel better in just a few days. Over time the villi will heal and re-grow. This process can take up to three years.

People who are not gluten-sensitive however do not need to eliminate gluten from their diet. Doing so creates no benefits to their health, as gluten is a component of healthy foods such as whole grains. It is an easy mistake to conclude that just because an item is “gluten-free” it is a healthier option. This is not the case.

For example a slice of gluten-free bread contains just a many, if not more, than a slice of whole wheat bread and it has less fiber. There is no need for a healthy individual who is not gluten sensitive to avoid gluten; doing so is not doing your health any favors.

If you are experiencing frequent abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue and suspect gluten sensitivity might be to blame, visit your doctor.

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.

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