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Gluten-free diet doesn’t always mean healthier

PHOENIX — As if getting older wasn’t bad enough, now there’s gluten to worry about.

According to a study from the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, as people approach midlife, digesting grains can become more difficult for the body.

After years of eating grains and baked goods, the study showed the pancreas can begin to slow production of enzymes that help digest grains, which can result in gluten intolerance.

Gluten intolerance is one of a wide array of problems that can occur from gluten-related disorders, said Glenn Gaesser, ASU professor of exercise physiology.

“There are basically a spectrum of gluten-related disorders going from the most extreme, which would be celiac disease, and then on the far end you have what would be called a wheat allergy,” he said.

Wheat is the most commonly consumed grain in the United States, and gluten in the primary protein in wheat. Gluten is also found in other grains such as barley and rye, Gaesser said.

Diagnosing gluten intolerance can be a difficult task though, because often the symptoms it presents are common.

“There is no general diagnosis that is basically cut and dry, no blood test you can take for it,” he said. “So it’s pretty much diagnosed on the basis of going on a gluten-free diet and seeing whether or not your symptoms actually improve.”

Gaesser said those symptoms include fatigue, headaches and gastrointestinal distress.

But before changing over to a gluten-free diet, Gaesser warned that these common symptoms can lead to people incorrectly self-diagnosing as gluten-intolerant.

“These are actually things that probably most people have experienced at one time or another,” he said. “For the vast majority of the population, certainly over 90 percent, I don’t think there is any reason to suspect they have a problem with gluten.”

Gaesser added that choosing gluten-free does not mean it is a healthier option either.

“I would also caution people that getting rid of gluten means you’re potentially getting rid of wheat products, that are very rich in nutrients that can provide health benefits,” he said.

“A gluten-free diet is not inherently healthier than a gluten-containing diet.”

He said that if people are experiencing recurring symptoms that may appear to be caused by gluten intolerance, they should see a nutritionist or doctor.

“If someone really has chronic problems, particularly with gastrointestinal distress, they should see a physician,” he said.


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