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Extension: Gluten-free diet: Is it for me?
gluten free

By Barbara Worley, For the Forsyth County News


Recently, there has been an increase in the number of people following a gluten-free diet along with an increased need for information about maintaining a healthy and successful gluten-free lifestyle. The difference between eliminating gluten from one’s diet due to medical reasons is substantially different than for inferred lifestyle benefits.  


What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, barley and rye. This includes all species of wheat including kamut, spelt and durum; as well as triticale, a hybrid between wheat and rye. Gluten is responsible for the elastic texture of dough, adds chewiness to many baked goods, and is used as a thickener and binder. Additionally, gluten provides a light, airy structure to bread and other baked goods by trapping gas released by the leavening process.  


Products containing gluten

Avoid the following unless labeled gluten-free or made with soy, corn, rice or another gluten-free grain: 

Beer, breads, cakes and pies, candies, cereals, cookies, crackers, croutons, French fries, gravies, imitation meat or seafood, malt, malt flavoring, malt vinegar, matzo, modified food starch, pastas, processed luncheon meat, salad dressings, sauces including soy sauce, seasoned rice mixes, seasoned snack foods such as potato and tortilla chips, self-basting poultry and vegetables in sauce. 

Play dough contains gluten and should not be handled by those with gluten sensitivities. Avoid medications and food supplements using gluten as a binding agent, and oats unless labeled gluten-free.


Gluten sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is the umbrella term encompassing three conditions: wheat allergy, celiac disease and gluten intolerance.  

In wheat allergy, you are only sensitive to wheat protein and can eat other grains gaining gluten. Typically, if wheat allergy occurs in childhood, a person outgrows it. 

Celiac Disease is a genetic, autoimmune disorder in which an individual cannot tolerate any gluten. Consuming gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and causes inflammation. This interferes with digestion and can lead to poor absorption of the carbohydrate, fat, protein and vitamins and minerals that the body needs. The signs and symptoms of Celiac Disease may take hours or even days to appear after gluten is ingested. It is a lifelong disorder with no cure, but can be managed with a gluten-free diet which allows the small intestine to repair itself and eliminates the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Gluten Intolerance has similar symptoms to Celiac Disease, but blood tests for Celiac will be negative and the small intestine is not harmed. There is no test to check specifically for gluten intolerance, but an individual may choose to eliminate all gluten from the diet and keep a journal of symptoms. If symptoms diminish, then a gluten-free diet should be adopted permanently after consulting with a physician and registered dietitian. 


Lifestyle benefits?

While the gluten-free diet has been touted for weight loss or to treat other conditions, there is not enough valid research. Some people do lose weight on a gluten-free diet, but mainly because they quit eating excess calories from starchy foods and instead consume more vegetables and fruits. Many gluten-free processed foods are high in calories, sugar and fat. If these are substituted for other breads and baked goods, no weight loss will occur. 

A gluten-free diet is designed for people who have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity by a knowledgeable doctor. The diet is too restrictive for someone to follow who has not been diagnosed and can be nutritionally unbalanced if not planned properly.   

For more information on nutrition and food safety, contact University of Georgia Extension in Forsyth County at (770) 887-2418 or online at ugaextension.org/county-offices/forsyth.html.  

Forsyth County Extension is supported by The University of Georgia, Forsyth County Government, Forsyth County Board of Education, and United Way of Forsyth County.


Barbara Worley is the Family and Consumer Sciences agent for the UGA Extension.