The Truth About Gluten-Free

Going gluten-free has been getting a lot of hype for a while, but is it for everyone? Not necessarily, say nutrition experts


One of the biggest hurdles that actor, singer and cooking show host Mary Jo Eustace faced when she decided to ditch all things gluten was convincing her teenage son that this was a good thing. “He gave me a lot of grief – and threatened to call child services,” she says.

In her new book, Scared Wheatless, Eustace chronicles her journey into gluten-free eating as a last-ditch effort to halt her (then) eight-year-old daughter’s hair loss due to alopecia, an autoimmune disorder. When the stress of worrying about her daughter made Eustace ill as well, her nutritionist suggested that the family try giving up gluten as a way to fight inflammation. “By that point, my philosophy was just ‘If it makes my daughter feel better, I’ll try it,'” says Eustace.

That was two years ago, and not only has her daughter’s hair grown back but Eustace herself feels healthier than ever before. Her gluten-free recipes, many of which are featured in Scared Wheatless, even won her son over. So was gluten to blame for her family’s health problems? “Who’s to say?” she says. “I just know that when we eat better, we feel better and, for us, it was worth it to give up gluten.”

This sentiment is shared by a growing number of Canadians. About 10 million of us are buying gluten-free products, but only about 2.5 million of us actually need them for medical reasons – the other seven million have just heard they’re healthier and have bought into the trend. “Part of the popularity of adopting a gluten-free diet is that it’s such an easy switch to make,” says Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. “By creating the idea that one particular kind of food is evil, you just have to avoid that food with no other rules. It’s just ‘Is it gluten-free so I can eat it, or is it not?'”

How dangerous is gluten?

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, acts as a glue that holds foods together and helps them keep their shape. Only about one percent of the population can’t tolerate gluten at all – these are the people who have celiac disease – while about six percent have a gluten sensitivity.

“I think the most common misconception about gluten is the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity,” says Dr. Talia Zenlea, a gastroenterologist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “Many people assume that, because they have symptoms that are triggered by gluten, they must have celiac disease, even if biopsies and blood tests suggest otherwise.”

Celiac disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation of the small intestine – inflammation that’s triggered by gluten. Many people with celiac disease have no symptoms at all. “Then there are those who experience bloating, belly pain, brain fog or altered bowel habits, such as diarrhea, and feel a whole lot better when they cut gluten out of their diets,” says Dr. Zenlea. “Some people have symptoms that are often associated with celiac disease but don’t have any of the characteristic blood tests, small-bowel biopsy findings or genetic markers of celiac. That’s what we call ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity.'”

Should everyone go gluten-free?

“There are some people who equate gluten-free with healthy eating,” says Dr. Zenlea. “And while it’s true that there are gluten-free grains that are very healthy, many people forget that a gluten-free cupcake is still a cupcake.”

But as long as you eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, Dr. Zenlea says it doesn’t matter if you choose to do that with or without gluten if you aren’t sensitive to it. And for people who ate a lot of processed foods before going gluten-free, their new diet may actually be healthier, especially if it means that they’re eating more fruits and vegetables, adds Nielsen. The problem, she says, is that many people still eat the same number of processed foods as before – they just happen to be gluten-free.

“A lot of gluten-free products have added emulsifiers and gums that are used to bind and suspend fats and hold things together in the absence of gluten,” says Nielsen. “Unfortunately, these things may actually make you feel worse, especially if you already have digestive issues.”

Then there’s the financial cost of going without gluten. Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax found that gluten-free foods are about 242 percent more expensive than their regular counterparts.

Still, Nielsen says the gluten-free craze is showing no sign of abating. “There is still such a huge health halo around it right now,” she says. The biggest danger is that some people may be taking it too far, which could lead to patterns of disordered eating, such as orthorexia. (Orthorexia is a term used to describe an often-debilitating obsession with eating only foods you think are healthy and cutting out everything else. Read more about orthorexia here.)

“When you start eliminating things, it’s easy to become obsessed with what your diet doesn’t have as opposed to what it does have,” says Nielsen. “You can end up being on an ‘everything-free’ eating plan if you aren’t careful.”

The main thing you risk missing out on when you remove gluten from your diet is fibre, which your bowels need to function properly. You may also not be getting enough B vitamins – important for everything from converting food into energy to maintaining a healthy heart – because many wheat-based breads and cereals are fortified with B vitamins. “The problem is that your body requires a certain balance of nutrients every day, which it can’t get if you don’t eat a varied diet,” says Nielsen. To make up for the fibre and B vitamins you might be lacking in a gluten-free diet, she recommends stocking up on sorghum, millet, quinoa and buckwheat, as well as fish, legumes and extra fruits and vegetables, especially
leafy greens.

The future of gluten-free

Someday, there may be a cure for anyone who has even the slightest adverse reaction to gluten. In July, researchers at the University of Alberta created a supplement from the yolks of chicken eggs that prevents the absorption of gliadin, a component of gluten that people with celiac disease have difficulty digesting. “The antibody neutralizes the toxic compounds in gluten right in the intestine before it gets absorbed,” says lead study author Hoon Sunwoo. “The supplement will also help people with gluten sensitivity.”

But the supplement is still going through clinical trials, so for now, going without gluten is the only option for many. “It doesn’t have to be hard, intimidating or expensive,” says Eustace. It took her six weeks to figure out how to stock her pantry with healthy, gluten-free staples and start making her own sauces (many soy sauces and salad dressings contain gluten). Now, her turkey quinoa meatloaf is a family favourite. “If you don’t plan, it doesn’t work, but the same could be said when you’re cooking anything,” says Eustace. The most important thing, she says, is to do your research and get the help of a nutritionist to make sure you’re still getting all the nutrients you need in your diet. “But the bottom line is, if you’re not feeling well and cutting out bread and pasta helps, then why not give it a try?”