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The Gluten-Free Diet

What Should I Know About The Gluten-Free Diet

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Updated April 27, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

A gluten-free diet is typically followed by people with celiac disease. Celiac disease, a digestive disorder that runs in families, is marked by intolerance to gluten (a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley).

In people with celiac disease, consuming gluten causes damage to the villi (structures in the small intestine responsible for absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream). The only known treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet, which helps prevent damage to the villi and the resulting complications (such as malnutrition), heal existing intestinal damage, and ease symptoms of celiac disease.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

While celiac disease-related symptoms and complications vary from person to person, they may include the following:

  • anxiety
  • arthritis
  • bone loss or osteoporosis
  • canker sores
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • infertility
  • menstrual problems (including missed periods)
  • pain in the bones or joints
  • recurrent miscarriage
  • seizures
  • tingling numbness in the hands and feet
  • unexplained iron-deficiency anemia

More common in children and infants than in adults, digestive symptoms of celiac disease including abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, irritability, and weight loss.

What Foods Are Included in the Gluten-Free Diet?

A gluten-free diet excludes all foods containing wheat, rye, and barley (such as many grains, pastas, cereals, and processed foods). Alternatives to wheat, rye, and barley products include foods made with flour derived from potatoes, rice, soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and beans. Additionally, gluten-free products (including bread and pasta) are now widely available in grocery stores.

Since unprocessed foods like meat, fish, rice, fruits, and vegetables do not contain gluten, people with celiac disease can freely eat these foods. In order to achieve a balanced diet, doctors often recommend that newly diagnosed celiac disease patients consult a dietitian for help in choosing sensible foods.

In addition to following a gluten-free diet, celiac disease patients should watch out for hidden sources of gluten. An ingredient in many medicines, vitamins, lip balms, and other personal-care products, gluten is often present in food additives (such as preservatives and modified food starch) and in corn and rice products made in factories that also manufacture wheat products. To avoid hidden sources of gluten, it's crucial for celiac disease patients to read all product labels carefully.

Should You Follow a Gluten-Free Diet?

In order to manage celiac disease, it's essential for all celiac disease patients to follow a gluten-free diet. Some medical experts suggest that a gluten-free diet may also benefit people with other forms of gluten sensitivity (often referred to as "non-celiac gluten intolerance") or with other medical conditions (including irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes).

To date, few studies have tested the effects of a gluten-free diet on people without celiac disease. What's more, a 2011 report from Nutrition in Clinical Practice states that there is weak evidence for the benefits of a gluten-free diet among people with other medical conditions.

If you are concerned about possible gluten sensitivity, talk to your doctor to determine whether a gluten-free diet is right for you.

Sources

American Dietetic Association. "Celiac Disease - Disease Management and Prevention Information". Last accessed August 2011.

El-Chammas K, Danner E. "Gluten-free diet in nonceliac disease." Nutr Clin Pract. 2011 Jun;26(3):294-9.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "Celiac Disease". NIH Publication No. 08–4269. September 2008.

National Institutes of Health. "Celiac disease - sprue: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia". August 2011.

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