Is your family following a gluten-free diet? Should you be? 


Many people have heard about the gluten-free diet, while others have started to integrate gluten-free foods into their meals because they believe they are healthier. Some may have a child diagnosed with a medical condition in which they have been recommended by a medical professional, friend or family member to go gluten free. Whatever your reasoning is, let’s discuss what eating gluten free truly means. 






Gluten Free Can Be Tasty

Are you able to continue eating a variety of healthful, nutrient-rich, delicious-tasting foods after going gluten free? Absolutely. In fact, many may find they eat more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains when following a gluten-free meal plan. Not what you’ve heard? Well, that could be due to the fact that many tend to focus on what you can’t have when going gluten free vs. what you can.


Naturally gluten-free foods are those without wheat, rye or barely, or ingredients made from them. This includes foods in their natural state (i.e., without any added ingredients) like vegetables, fruit, fish, shellfish, beans, nuts, poultry, beef, pork, and whole grains such as rice, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, millet, and gluten-free oats. Most dairy foods would be included, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, as long as they are free from gluten-containing added ingredients.


Gluten-free versions of packaged foods, such as pasta, bread and frozen pizza as well as medications, like multivitamins and prescription drugs, are available. You’ll find more gluten-free products on shelves now than ever before. Manufacturers have had to become experts at developing better tasting, better functioning gluten-free versions of common favorite foods. The result is greater variety for the gluten-free shopper.


For the past year, gluten-free labeling has been in effect in the United States. This means any product claiming to be gluten free must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten per serving. Therefore, when shopping for gluten-free packaged foods, verify the manufacturer is in fact claiming the item is gluten free. 



Who Should Consider a Gluten Free Meal Plan?

Who should be following a gluten- free meal plan? First and foremost, individuals formally diagnosed with celiac disease and/or dermatitis herpetiformis. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine is attacked by one’s immune system when gluten is ingested. Dermatitis herpetiformis is a skin condition in which individuals develop a blistering rash when eating gluten-containing food. 


There is a condition called non-celiac gluten intolerance that is thought to affect more people than celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis combined. This could be why many people feel and perform better when eating gluten free voluntarily — regardless of a formal diagnosis. 


What about someone who feels better when they eat gluten free? Or children diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorders? 


This holds true for children diagnosed with ADHD and autism. The jury is still out on whether a gluten-free diet is an appropriate option for all children with these diagnoses or if some children simply react positively on the meal plan due to underlying undiagnosed non-celiac gluten intolerance.


The upside to non-celiac gluten intolerance is that individuals may not be at greater risk for developing autoimmune disorders such as diabetes and thyroid disease. The downside is that their body may react similarly to gluten as one would with celiac disease. All of the possible symptoms associated with celiac disease, from migraines and fatigue to bloating and diarrhea, may still happen. For this reason, it is imperative patients rule out celiac disease as the cause for symptoms before going gluten free. 


Remaining on a gluten-containing meal plan until formerly diagnosed with non-celiac gluten intolerance is much easier said than done. The importance cannot be dismissed, though. If one goes gluten free prior to receiving appropriate blood work and an endoscopy, this may cause false negative results. Therefore, a person may never know if they are at an increased risk for malnutrition and other autoimmune disorders. Nor will parents know if they can file a 504 Plan to ensure their child receives accommodations at school, such as access to gluten-free food and art supplies.



Finding Help To Start

If you or a family member has been diagnosed with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis or non-celiac gluten intolerance, there are plenty of resources at your disposal. From various national celiac organizations, local support groups from the New England Celiac Organization (NECO), and registered dietitians seasoned in the art of eating, shopping, and cooking gluten-free, there is a solid network to help you begin your journey to a healthier, happier gluten free you. 


Carrie Taylor is the lead registered dietitian nutritionist for the Living Well Eating Smart program at Big Y Foods.