Steering clear of gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye and barley — is trendy nowadays for all kinds of reasons, most of them unrelated to gluten intolerance.
There’s just one problem with joining the gluten-free craze: A glut of misinformation has led to a crazy jumble of conflicting advice. So figuring out whether you need to avoid gluten takes some sleuthing, something every fiftysomething should take the time to do. That’s because a diagnosis of celiac disease, the serious autoimmune disorder that results in a permanent intolerance to gluten, is much more common in people over 50.
The Trouble With Gluten
A clever New Yorker magazine cartoon portrays one woman’s confusion over gluten: “I have no idea what gluten is either, but I’m avoiding it, just to be safe.”
She’s not alone. Many people are avoiding gluten for reasons they can’t express or they’re convinced that eating a gluten-free diet is going to help them lose weight, feel more energetic or become healthier.
Experts say: Hogwash.
“People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these (gluten-free) products are expensive,” says Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
The prime reason to avoid gluten is if you have celiac disease, a rare genetic illness that afflicts about one in 100 people. With celiac disease, people need to follow a gluten-free diet because even a tiny amount of the protein can seriously damage the small intestine, trigger mild to severe gastro-intestinal distress and make it harder for the body to absorb key nutrients. This often leads to nutritional deficiencies and weight loss.
Interestingly, celiac disease is on the rise, with four times as many cases today as there were about 60 years ago. Evidence also shows that a substantial number of people being diagnosed with celiac disease are over 50.
An intolerance to gluten, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system. Instead, intolerances bring about some of the same GI symptoms, but the symptoms don’t last and don’t cause any permanent intestinal damage. Someone with an intolerance to gluten might be able to tolerate tiny amounts of the protein without issue. In someone with celiac disease, something as simple as one crouton in a salad can wreak havoc.
Testing for Gluten Problems
Think you might have celiac disease or gluten intolerance? The first step is to get tested. Don’t cut gluten out of your diet before testing. Once a person avoids gluten for awhile, the immune system stops making the antibodies against gluten that the test measures.
Not having any symptoms but wondering if testing is needed? Anyone who fits into one of these categories is at risk: family history of celiac, Type 1 diabetes, premature bone disease, chronic diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome.
Adults who develop celiac disease are less likely to have digestive symptoms but might present with fatigue, joint pain, canker sores and any other of the symptoms associated with the illness according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Gluten-Free: A Tale of Good and Bad Choices
If you do decide to go gluten-free for whatever reason, keep in mind that sidestepping foods containing wheat, barley and rye leave you missing key vitamins and nutrients including iron, calcium, fiber and B vitamins.
Making this choice means you need to pay careful attention to what you eat. And go easy on the snacks. Statistics show that about half the new gluten-free packaged foods in the supermarket fall into this category. While these cookies, cakes and chips taste good, they’re still empty calories.
In fact, the best strategy for avoiding gluten, if you need to or just want to, is cooking at home. The good news is there are many great cookbooks and websites with gluten-free recipes, including this one from the Mayo Clinic and another one from award-winning cookbook author Shauna James Ahern, aka, the Gluten-Free Girl.