After suffering from chronic stomach pain for years, dietician Stephanie Clairmont decided to try a gluten-free diet to see if it could relieve her symptoms.
It did. Going gluten-free made a world of difference, says Clairmont—so much so that she started a digestive clinic to help people deal with their health problems by adjusting their diets.
“Every day I had a stomach ache. You don’t want to complain about it but it’s there, it’s awful, and it went on for years,” says Waterloo-based Clairmont, who was put on a restricted diet after being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
“Since cutting out gluten, I have been living two years now without any type of chronic daily stomach pain or discomfort, which is a great success.”
Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley has become the latest pariah among foodies, and the gluten-free lifestyle—estimated to be a $90-million industry in Canada alone—continues to explode in popularity.
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The gluten-free buzzword now seems to pop up everywhere you look—from cookbooks and TV talk shows to specialty stores and beauty products. In mid-September Canada’s second Gluten Free Expo was held in Toronto, attracting 100 exhibitors.
The popularity of the diet has been largely fuelled by endorsements from celebrities such as TV star Elizabeth Hasselbeck, pop singer Miley Cyrus, and actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The release last year of the best-selling book “Wheat Belly,” which blames modern-day wheat for a multitude of ills, has also contributed to the gluten-free craze.
Some who adopt the diet report relief from ailments such as abdominal pain, eczema or rash, headaches, fatigue, bowel and digestive problems, and “brain fog”—common symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
Celiac, or Gluten Avoider?
Health Canada estimates about 1 percent of Canadians (340,000 people) suffer from celiac disease, a genetic disorder that occurs when gluten triggers an abnormal immune response, damaging the lining of the small intestine and interfering with the absorption of nutrients.
But aside from celiacs, who must strictly avoid gluten for life, it is estimated that there are millions of “gluten avoiders” in Canada—people who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, yet have adopted a gluten-free or gluten-reduced diet.
Among the reasons gluten avoiders adopt the diet are a desire to lose weight or to get relief from health problems that can be hard to diagnose. Others perceive it as simply a healthier way to eat.
However, the growth of gluten avoiders has raised concerns among some health professionals, who say that following a gluten-free diet without first consulting a doctor or dietician could be harmful.
“I think what’s really driven this whole lifestyle has been the celebrities,” says Shelley Case, a Regina-based nutrition expert on celiac disease and the gluten-free diet.
“This fad diet is the flavour of the month right now. It’s kind of like Atkins was a number of years ago. Now it’s gluten-free.”
Unnecessary Gluten-free Diets
Last month Case spoke at an international Celiac Disease Symposium in Chicago, where she voiced her concerns about the risks of unnecessary gluten-free diets. She says one of the biggest issues is that people are not consulting an expert or doing adequate research before going on the diet.
“These people may not have worked with a dietician, they’ve just sort of done this on their own, and so they’re not really aware of what [nutrients] they might be missing out on,” says Case.
A common misconception about gluten-free foods—which on average are more than double the price of gluten-containing foods—is that they’re automatically healthy, says Case. But many foods advertised as gluten-free are refined and have been stripped of fibre and some vitamins and nutrients.
“The big risks for people who don’t have celiac and are following the gluten-free diet is that they’re often eating the processed gluten-free products, and many of these products are not enriched with iron and B vitamins,” she says.
“You can have a pretty decent, healthy gluten-free diet, but from my experience of working as a dietician for over 32 years, after looking at food records [of gluten avoiders], they aren’t getting a good balance.”
She also notes that a gluten-free diet doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss.
‘The diet is great’
Case says anyone considering a gluten-free diet should first consult an expert and get tested for celiac disease, the reason being that if an undiagnosed celiac cuts out some gluten but does not adopt a strict celiac diet, they may never get properly diagnosed. And if they continue to ingest small amounts of gluten it could lead to serious complications.
People who go gluten-free first and then get tested for celiac disease often get a false test result because they need to eat gluten regularly for a period of time before the test for it to be accurate.
Clairmont agrees that getting tested is important, but says almost everyone who comes to her clinic has improved from a balanced gluten-free or reduced-gluten diet.
“Even just the gluten-reduced diet is decreasing symptoms completely. They might not be celiac, they might not have an allergy, but definitely a lot of modern-day wheat products are bothersome,” she says.
“The diet is great because it’s a safe way to try to deal with some of your health issues. As long as you’re eating balanced and including the things you need, then there’s not a lot of side effects that would be bad.”