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Gluten free going even more mainstream


June 26, 2012
By The Canadian Press

June 26, 2012, Toronto – The number of Canadians going gluten-free is
growing, morphing the diet from a medically required health decision
into a food fad.

June 26, 2012, Toronto – Clara Cohen may covet croissants and go bonkers
for baguettes, but she's given them up in pursuit of good health.

Joining a growing number of Canadians experimenting with the latest in
nutritional trends, Cohen has gone gluten-free and plans to stay that
way.

But as the diet – used to treat celiac disease – morphs into a movement
of sorts, some experts caution against mistaking a medically required
lifestyle for a food fad.

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For her part, Cohen says going gluten-free has so far been a good thing.

The Port Moody, B.C., resident says avoiding gluten-free junk food has
resulted in weight loss, clearer skin and reduced bloating. She says
it's also eliminated monthly migraines.

"The gluten-free thing, for me it's fascinating," said the 45-year-old
acupuncturist, who changed her eating habits last August after hearing
about the purported benefits of the diet.

"I wasn't really expecting much. But I think it really helped.''

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune condition that damages the
gastrointestinal tract and hinders the absorption of vitamins and
minerals. Sufferers react badly to gluten, the protein component that
gives elasticity to dough and is found in foods made with wheat, rye,
barley and their derivatives.

Symptoms of the disease, which affects one in 100 people, include
cramps, constipation, diarrhea, anemia, bone pain and migraines. Experts
say the variety of warning signs mean the disease, which can only be
confirmed with a blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine, is
underdiagnosed.

And some say they are concerned about the growing popularity of the
gluten-free diet, fearing it could cause cases of celiac disease and
gluten sensitivities to go undiagnosed.

Gluten, and the damage it inflicts on those who react badly to it, needs
to be present in a person's gut when tests are run, explains Shelley
Case, a Regina-based registered dietician who sits on the professional
advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association.

Allowing the disease to go undiagnosed can lead to more serious
conditions like thyroid disease, cancer of the gut and arthritis.

"It's really important that people actually go get tested for Celiac,
because if you go on the gluten-free diet because it's the latest buzz
then it's almost impossible to get an accurate diagnosis,'' said Case.

For those who aren't medically required to eliminate gluten, the long-term perks of the popular diet are being questioned.

"If you don't have celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there's
really no benefit to cutting out whole grains,'' said Case, who
emphasized the benefits of a balanced diet filled with natural foods.

Anecdotes on the benefits of going gluten-free, however, are easy to
find and Case acknowledges that if done right, the change in eating
habits could trigger weight loss.

"If you cut out bagels and pizza and cookies and muffins, you're
eliminating a lot of concentrated calories. And if you're starting to
eat more fruits, vegetables, lean meat, people are going to be eating
healthier,'' said Case.

"But it's not the gluten that's causing the weight gain, it is in fact that they've reduced a lot of the high calorie foods.

Not everyone loses weight by going gluten-free, she warned. Those who
flock to gluten-free versions of bread, pasta or brownies can actual
gain a few pounds.

"People need to know that most of the gluten-free processed products are
much higher in calories due to more fat and sugar in them,'' Case said,
adding that such products also lack some of the vitamins and minerals
their regular counterparts are enriched with.

Still, the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet is undeniable.

"It is going gangbusters,'' said Ottawa-based nutritionist Kathy Smart, who has written a book on gluten-free living.

"It is amazing how many people are contacting me about gluten-free
menus, recipes, and it's people who don't have celiac disease. It's
really getting mainstream.''

The spike in interest seems driven by a growing belief that many wheat
products available today are far too modified and processed, said Smart.

"More people are going gluten-free just to see how they feel,'' she added.

"The impact of eliminating gluten from the diet, even for non-celiac
people is increased energy, sleeping better at night, less brain fog and
a lot of people experience weight loss.''

The key to success, said Smart, is staying away from packages with a gluten-free label and focusing instead on fresh food.

"Just because it says gluten-free on the box doesn't mean it's healthy
for you,'' she said. "Going gluten free is going back to basics.''

Ultimately though, the gluten-free diet appears to be something that works or doesn't on an individual basis.

Gillian Brown learned that first-hand. The 24-year-old Toronto wellness
consultant chose to experiment with the gluten-free diet in May. Unlike
some others, her body didn't feel much of an effect, but the experience
deepened her understanding of dietary choices.

"Physically I didn't notice a huge difference,'' she said. "But I'm a
lot more conscious of the amount of gluten that I eat now.''

For Brown, the biggest lesson was an appreciation of the challenges
facing those who have to live gluten-free not by choice, but by
necessity.

"My experience was just stepping into a person's shoes when they have to
eat gluten-free and the limitations they experience on a daily basis,''
she said. "It's made me a lot more compassionate for people with
certain dietary restrictions.''