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Don’t go gluten-free “just because.”

The “gluten-free diet” became mainstream in recent years as claims popped up it could help with weight loss, boost energy levels and improve overall health – but there’s little evidence to support those claims.

Ekta Shah, MD, who specializes in allergy and immunology at Carolinas HealthCare System, says there are only three reasons a person needs to be gluten-free:

  • If you have a wheat allergy that causes hives, swelling, coughing, wheezing or throwing up right after eating wheat. It is usually outgrown in childhood and it affects less than 1 percent of the US population.
  • If you have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that damages the intestinal tract after eating gluten. This affects about 3 million people in the US.
  • If you have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which may result in gas, bloating and discomfort after eating gluten. This affects about 18 million people in the US.

A Glimpse at Gluten

Gluten – a protein found in various grains, such as wheat, rye and barley – is not necessarily good or bad, says Dr. Shah. In fact, it has been part of the human diet for thousands of years.

“The gluten-free trend became popular after a small group of Australian researchers credited gluten as the cause of digestive problems in people with irritable bowel syndrome,” says Dr. Shah. “However, a follow-up study determined it was a carbohydrate found in wheat that caused the symptoms. By the time the follow-up study was published, the gluten-free fad was well-established.”

Going Gluten-free May Not be Best

While following a gluten-free diet may lead to some weight loss, it does not automatically make it a healthier diet.

“Many gluten-free products have the same, or more, amounts of sugar and carbohydrates as products with gluten,” says Dr. Shah. “And a gluten-free diet may deprive you of important nutrients, including B vitamins and fiber if you are not replacing these nutrients elsewhere in your diet.”

Figure Out Food Allergies

  • A food allergy happens when our body’s immune system overreacts to certain foods that cause various symptoms every time the food gets eaten.
  • Food allergy symptoms – hives, swelling, difficulty breathing – usually occur within minutes of eating a certain food.
  • Being gluten-sensitive is different from having a wheat allergy or celiac disease.
  • Sometimes confused with celiac disease, or thought of as a food allergy, a gluten intolerance also can cause digestive problems (gas, pain, diarrhea). However, food intolerances only involve the digestive system.
  • Celiac disease symptoms range from chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, difficulty gaining weight and nutritional deficiencies.
  • Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine.
  • If you think you may have a food allergy or food intolerance, check with your doctor before removing food from your diet.
  • If you need to follow a gluten-free diet, check with a dietitian to find healthy options.