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Do gluten-free diets work and are they safe?

11:47 PM, Nov 23, 2010   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida - Eating gluten-free is the latest diet craze. Everyone from the rich and famous to Bay area locals claim the diet has helped them lose weight. Under the glaring bright lights of Hollywood, skinny superstars like Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow swear by it.

The popularity of gluten-free foods is soaring. Sales of gluten-free products have more than doubled since 2005. It's a trend that's booming in the Bay area too, like at Abby's Health and Nutrition at 14374 N. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

But while some go gluten-free to try to lose weight, others are forced to for health reasons. Those with celiac disease suffer an immune reaction if they eat gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Science teacher Katrina Tiller, 31, tested negative for celiac disease but decided to go gluten-free anyway because she says gluten in her diet caused her problems. "I have Crohn's disease, which is a disease that attacks the digestive system."

But she also suspected she was gluten intolerant. "Well, every time I would eat something, especially breads and pastas and things like that, I would feel really bloated and I would just have some not fun digestive side effects."

She says she no longer feels sick after she eats. She says, "It's more expensive but it's worth it."

Which is why she was busy shopping at Abby's Health store Monday afternoon, picking up a few ingredients to make gluten-free pies for Thanksgiving.

Charlotte Lawson is a dietitian for the Hillsborough County Health Department and says losing weight on a gluten-free diet can work, but the lost pounds can be deceiving. Lawson says, "What's happening now is the people going on the gluten-free diet are actually cutting carbohydrates from their diet and then, therefore, seeing weight loss. So, it's kind of a catch-22. It's not necessarily the gluten that's causing the weight loss but maybe it's forcing them to choose healthier options of food."

Lawson says, though, that going gluten-free when you're healthy and you don't need to can be risky. "A lot of the foods like your wheat, your barley, your rye that contain that gluten -- l mean whole grain foods like I said -- contain numerous vitamins and nutrients that are definitely valuable to our system in general."

Her advice is that if you're healthy you should skip the gluten-free diet. "I would recommend don't worry about the gluten-free but choose healthier carbohydrates. Look at high fiber, less processed, no added sugars that really ends up being our enemy."

Eating gluten-free doesn't mean you'll lose weight, since some gluten-free items have just as many calories as regular food.

If you have the following symptoms, you could be gluten intolerant.

  • Frequent diarrhea
  • Frequent constipation
  • Frequent bloating
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Failure to grow (in children)
  • Anemia
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Frequent headaches
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Itchy skin lesions
  • Tooth enamel defects
  • Mouth ulcers

Celiac disease can be detected through a blood test and intestinal biopsy. Lawson says you should check with your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.

She recommends the American Dietetic Association's website for tips. Click here.

Click here to learn more about celiac disease.

Meanwhile, Katrina Tiller has started a group on Facebook for people in the Tampa Bay area to exchange information about gluten-free living. Click here to visit her website.

Tammie Fields, 10 News

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