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For many people, gluten-free is the only way to be

By Rebecca Kuzins 01/10/2013

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The popularity of gluten-free foods has exploded in recent years, leading some to characterize these products as the “low-carb fad of this decade.” According to the market research firm Packaged Facts, Americans spent $4.2 billion on gluten-free foods and beverages in 2012, a compound annual growth of 28 percent between 2008 and 2012. The company predicts the market for these products will exceed $66 billion by 2017.
 
Gluten is the plant protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats. It is usually found in bread, pizza, cookies, muffins and bagels, but can also be an ingredient in coffee, spices, cosmetics and medication. A gluten-free diet typically substitutes quinoa, buckwheat, corn and millet for grains containing gluten and can also include fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish and eggs. 
 
Consuming products with gluten can be life-threatening for every 1 in 133 Americans, about 1 percent of the population, who suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune ailment in which the intestinal wall is damaged by gluten. However, by some estimates, another 12 percent of the population experiences gluten sensitivity, and, in the words of Pasadena-based dietician Jill Place, “just don’t feel well if they eat gluten.”
 
Place speaks from personal experience, because she herself is sensitive to wheat and oats, and felt ill before she adopted a gl0uten-free diet. She now feels better and said that finding gluten-free products, which used to be difficult, “is easier now than ever. I can even eat gluten-free pizza.”
 
Although relatively few people suffer from celiac disease, many more people are making an effort to eat gluten-free foods because they are gluten-sensitive or believe this diet will improve their nutrition and help them lose weight. Packaged Facts estimates 18 percent of American adults claim to be gluten-free, up from 15 percent in 2010. 
 
The public’s interest in gluten-free eating hasn’t been lost on food producers, which in the past decade have introduced a wide range of items that cater to the restriction. The Whole Foods Market on Arroyo Parkway, for instance, designates a portion of its second floor to these products, boasting that “Arroyo has the largest gluten-free section in town.” 
 
Whole Foods features flour made from white and brown rice, sorghum, amaranth, potato, quinoa, coconut and arrowroot instead of wheat and other gluten-containing grains. Other gluten-free items include corn dogs, chicken nuggets, pies, cookies, pizza, waffles, pretzels, cereals, soup and beer.    
 
While people with celiac disease or celiac sensitivity need to avoid foods with gluten, can a gluten-free diet benefit the many other people who have adopted this regimen? 
 
Nutritionists maintain that a daily diet should include grains, as well as protein, sometimes found in grains. Totally avoiding bread or other grain-filled products as a way to avoid gluten is probably a bad idea. However, grains are contained in gluten-free products such as bread, crackers and cereal. Similarly, Place said, “There are many other places to get protein, so you don’t need protein from grains.” 
 
But maintaining a gluten-free diet may not be the best way to lose weight. A study published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that this diet is an ineffective weight-loss method because gluten-free products contain more fat and sugar than foods with the substance. 
 
Place, however, said she’s lost 10 pounds since starting her gluten-free diet and argued that people with gluten sensitivity might attain the same results. For these people, she said, “the body stores gluten as fat and can’t release it.” By avoiding gluten, people can avoid this problem, and have an easier time shedding pounds.  
 
Place cautioned people to find out whether they are either celiac sufferers or gluten-sensitive before embarking on a gluten-free diet. She encourages people to undertake a specific test to determine if they have celiac disease, or a more general allergy test to check if they are allergic to foods containing gluten. 
 
“There are no benefits to a gluten-free diet unless you are gluten-sensitive,” Place added. She recalled that when she was shopping at Whole Foods, “loading my cart with gluten-free stuff, a guy was watching me. He told me he’s been gluten-free for three months and not feeling any different. He probably didn’t have a problem with gluten.” 

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