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Is gluten-free good for you?

What you need to know about the latest dietary trend

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The term "gluten-free" is popping up everywhere.

From pizzas to baked goods, from cereals to beer, grocery manufacturers have produced a stunning array of new products without gluten – a grain-based protein that is commonly found in food containing wheat, barley, triticale and rye.

That’s a good thing.

Gluten has long been associated with celiac disease, a digestive condition that affects about one in 133 Canadians. People living with celiac disease must follow a strict 100 per cent gluten-free diet, as this is the only treatment for managing the disease.

The diet has also become popular with people who have nonceliac gluten sensitivity and various gastrointestinal and digestion issues, including irritable bowel syndrome. These individuals may find that they feel better when they avoid gluten, so the more gluten-free products that are available, the more choices there are for people who have these conditions.

But the rise in gluten-free products also seems to be attracting a wider audience beyond those living with celiac disease or other digestion issues.

And that is not such a good thing.

The problem is that some advocates of the gluten-free diet claim that it can provide health benefits to those who do not suffer from celiac disease. Among other things, they claim going gluten-free can help someone lose weight, gain energy and improve their overall health. Even celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus have gotten into the act, with both claiming to have benefitted health-wise from going gluten-free.

But the fact is there is no evidence at this time to support the belief that a gluten-free eating pattern can promote overall health, boost energy or help you lose weight.

In fact, those who simply drop gluten from their diet may lose good sources of fibre, iron and B vitamins. In addition, many commercial gluten-free products actually contain more sugar, salt and fat compared to similar gluten-containing products.

In some respects, the gluten-free diet craze is not unlike other fad diets that have come and gone over the years. These diets tend to promise health benefits that can’t be backed up by science. As a result, they can cause more harm than good.

In this case, there is no question that a gluten-free diet provides benefits to people with celiac disease. We also know that gluten-free eating may have the potential to help with symptoms of some other digestion issues, once celiac disease and a wheat allergy have been ruled out. But for everyone else looking to enhance their well-being through healthy eating, it’s best to take the advice offered in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide. Follow a balanced eating pattern that includes foods from the four main food groups: vegetables and fruit, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives and – last, but not least – grain products.

Michelle Arpin Molinski is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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