Living gluten free

Before you and your family eliminate gluten from your diets, do your research and check with your doctor

By Edie Shaw-Ewald

Supermarkets, cafés and even fast food outlets are carrying a vast array of gluten-free products. Millions of Canadians are avoiding gluten for reasons such as weight loss, digestive issues, and general health. But is gluten bad? What is gluten anyway? And are you wondering if going gluten free is a good idea for your family?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Obvious foods such as bread, pasta and muffins contain gluten, but it’s also in many other food products, such as sauces, soups, and seasonings.

A strict gluten-free diet is absolutely critical for people with celiac disease. Approximately one per cent of Canadians have celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune disorder of the intestinal tract. When a person with this disorder consumes even a minute amount of gluten, their immune system is activated, which can lead to damage of the intestinal tract. 

Undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease can lead to serious health complications. If you have a family member with celiac disease or are experiencing digestive problems or other symptoms associated with celiac disease, consult your doctor to see if you should be tested. Don’t start a gluten-free diet before undergoing the blood test and a biopsy as you must be consuming gluten to produce an accurate result.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity was recognized as a condition in 2012, but further studies have shown the digestion issues are more likely due to a sensitivity to FODMAPs or fermentable oligosaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Wheat and rye are among the high FODMAP foods that could be causing discomfort. The FODMAP diet is a complicated elimination diet with a gradual re-introduction of foods. It’s best to seek the assistance of a dietitian for help with this regimen. 

It’s also thought that people with gluten sensitivity may have undiagnosed celiac disease. Before assuming you have a gluten sensitivity, consult your doctor to make sure you don’t have celiac disease. It’s of vital importance that a test for celiac disease is done before attempting a gluten-free diet.

There is nothing about gluten itself that’s unhealthy. Going gluten free can actually be detrimental. 

Packaged gluten-free foods are usually not as healthy as their gluten-containing counterparts. They’re lower in fibre, B vitamins and iron, and higher in sugar and fat. Plus, they can be double the price. 

Restrictive diets can be socially isolating and difficult for children to understand. This may create anxiety around food and health and take away from the joy of eating.

There’s concern about children on gluten-free diets being exposed to too much arsenic from the consumption of rice and rice products. Rice is often grown in arsenic-rich soil and the exposure to arsenic can cause health problems.

So maybe going gluten-free isn’t the answer, but don’t be discouraged about improving your family’s diet. Start by eating more vegetables and fruit, trying different whole grains, such as quinoa and millet, and choosing plant proteins such as beans and lentils for some meals. 

Free your family from popular food fads and trends and focus on the facts of healthy eating.