Are the health benefits of a gluten-free diet fact or fad?

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    Dr. Stephanie Moleski, a gasteroenterologist at Jefferson Hospital, gives her take on gluten sensitivity. 

    As a gasteroenterologist at Jefferson Hospital, Dr. Stephanie Moleski empathizes with the patients she treats for celiac disease. Often it is more than just about a change in diet. Giving up gluten is often difficult and complex.

    “Having to cut out pasta, having to miss out on family meals…the social aspect of having to cut out gluten is sometimes hard on people,” says Moleski. “A lot of our social lives really revolve around eating in general.”

    Celiac patients suffer from an autoimmune disease. Gluten triggers an inflammatory process that can cause severe stomach distress, fatigue, infertility and anemia. Every year more and more people, who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, are also embarking on gluten-free diets. It’s impossible not to notice the growing trend with stores and restaurants jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. Recent books have touted going gluten-free as a way to cure everything from a large tummy to diabetes.

    Studies by respected medical researchers have shown that the prevalence of celiac disease has increased, and a landmark study in 2011 helped put gluten sensitvity on the map. Data gathered from a randomized, controlled, double-blind trial on gluten sensitivity showed that patients who did not have celiac disease, did have symptoms when they ate gluten. The study validated gluten sensitivity as its own medical entity, outside of celiac disease. 

    Initially, Moleski says she thought, ‘”Oh, these patients don’t have celiac disease. They want to, but they really don’t.”   But since the study, doctors are more aware of gluten sensitivity and Moleski says, “it has been recognized as a true entity.” 

    Diagnoses of gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and wheat allergies are becoming more common. For patients who have ruled out those specific medical issues but insist that they feel better without gluten in their diet, Dr. Moleski says that while gluten-free can be “a healthful diet” there are a number of important factors to keep in mind, including the loss of nutrients that come from enriched wheat products, the expense of gluten-free products, and the difficulty in finding them.

    Finally, the diet may not help the patient achieve the goals they had in mind.  “People cut out gluten and think they are going to lose weight,” said Moleski. “If you are eating a lot of gluten-free waffles and bagels, you might actually gain weight.”

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