Gluten-free foods are important for people with celiac disease and other health problems associated with gluten. For people without these conditions, gluten-free foods are not inherently better than foods with gluten. Avoiding or minimizing gluten intake can help people make healthier food choices, but avoiding gluten entirely may lead to deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals.
Gluten and Celiac Disease
Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free foods first rose to prominence in response to the increased prevalence of celiac disease, which affects approximately 1 percent of Americans, WebMD notes. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune systems have an abnormal reaction that causes inflammation of the small intestine. This can cause diarrhea, anemia, bone pain and a skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis.
Gluten-free foods may also be better for people with a condition called gluten sensitivity. This condition, which affects up to 18 million Americans, according to Prevention.com, does not cause intestinal inflammation. However, when people with gluten sensitivity eat gluten, they can develop abdominal cramps, diarrhea, bloating and flatulence. The mechanism of this disease is not well understood, but it may be caused by the effects of gluten on intestinal bacteria.
Gluten-free foods may provide benefits for people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Eliminating foods such as white bread, pasta made with white flour and mass-produced baked goods from the diet can help reduce the amount of artificial preservatives and refined carbohydrates consumed. Many gluten-free diets emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, as almost all of them lack gluten. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other gluten-free foods, such as low-fat dairy and lean sources of protein provides fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein without adding high levels of fats or carbohydrates.
Following a gluten-free diet can have some unintended consequences, especially for people who do not have a medical reaction to gluten. Many whole grains contain gluten, and these fiber-rich grains can help reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Whole grains are also rich in many vitamins, particularly the B vitamins, and iron. Anyone looking to eliminate gluten from her diet should talk to a nutritionist or a physician to help her develop a healthy eating plan.