Students test gluten-free diets for health benefits

Lucy Tantum

A diet free of bread, pizza, and pasta may seem difficult. But for an increasing number of gluten-free dieters, it is a reality.

About 1.6 million Americans have chosen to go on a gluten-free diet without a diagnosis of gluten intolerance, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).

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As going gluten-free becomes mainstream, questions remain unanswered about how effective and healthy it really is.

Could a diet free of gluten, a protein found in wheat and grain products, really be the key to better health, or is it just another fad?

Sophomore Emma Yates said she tried a gluten-free diet for six weeks after watching her mother’s health improve from the diet, and that friends and family were surprised by her choice.

“They were kind of shocked,” she said. “Not many people can really imagine not eating anything with gluten in it for a long time.”

Yates said she eventually stopped the diet because it was so restrictive.

But is the health that comes with a gluten-free diet just a perception, or are there real benefits?

Three million Americans have celiac disease, a disease in which gluten is not absorbed into the body and can affect digestion, according to the NFCA. However, it is estimated that 85 percent of people with celiac disease are either misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.

Gluten sensitivity is a newly coined term for a milder version of celiac disease. According to the NFCA, gluten sensitivity affects about 18 million Americans – about six times the amount affected by celiac disease.

Junior Patrick Tracy was diagnosed with celiac disease in eighth grade and has been gluten-free ever since. He said that the change was difficult at first, but that it has paid off.

“I wasn’t tired anymore and I wasn’t sick anymore, and just overall my level of energy was higher. It’s definitely worth it for me,” he said. “The hardest part about it was giving up my favorite foods which were pizza and bread and things like that.”

While Tracy said that he has been able to find gluten-free substitutes for many of these foods, Yates said it was difficult to eat at friends’ houses or restaurants while on the diet.

“It’s really, really hard to avoid gluten wherever you go,” she said.

Both Yates and Tracy said that they felt better almost immediately upon going on the diet.

“It might sound corny, but you just feel cleaner, if that makes sense,” Yates said. “You just feel better in general.”

But is the health that comes with a gluten-free diet just a perception, or are there real benefits?

Gluten-free dieting has been scrutinized in recent studies, with various results.

According to a 2012 study from Arizona State University, gluten consumption helps to control blood pressure and strengthens the immune system, so eliminating it from one’s diet could be dangerous.

However, an Australian study recently found that symptoms of gastrointestinal illnesses were alleviated when the subjects stopped eating gluten, reaffirming another potential benefit of a gluten-free diet.