Gluten-free can help, but may also hurt

HOUGHTON – It’s becoming more and more popular: gluten-free. Signs for restaurants, menus and advertisements now spout it off proudly. And for some people it’s a serious need, but for others it’s more of a way to help them lose weight.

Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital Registered Dietician Beth Cook said that most people who need to avoid products that contain gluten must do so because of Celiac disease or because of a gluten intolerance.

Cook identified gluten as a protein which is found in wheat and wheat products. She also said Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder which sees gluten as a foreign entity.

“It causes damage to the flora (microorganisms) in your gut (intestines),” she said. “You’re not able to absorb nutrients well.”

Cook added that a lot of people with the disease have anemia, osteoporosis or vitamin B deficiency.

If someone is in need of gluten-free products, doing so can help a person’s gut, as well as better absorb nutrients.

However, if someone is not in need of products without gluten, Cook does not recommend voluntarily observing a gluten-free diet.

“You could become nutrient deficient,” she said. “It’s not really a healthier alternative. Some people might think they’ll lose weight, but in actuality people might miss out on B vitamins.”

However, for people who need gluten-free products, there are a lot of options from which to choose.

“Meats, fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free,” Cook said. “But what people have to watch out for is a lot of processed food that have gluten ingredients added. One has to be pretty educated on finding these ingredients.”

For example, a label might indicate that a product contains modified food starch, leaving it up to the customer to decide whether it’s corn or wheat starch, the latter of which will contain gluten while the former will not.

Cook also admits there will be a different taste to the gluten-free products and advises people who are just starting out on this kind of diet to shop around and find a brand that he or she might like.

“It’s something you have to get used to,” she said. “Experiment with new recipes.”

For those who continue to eat gluten despite having a deficiency, effects may include bloating, gassiness, fatigue and diarrhea, but some may not exhibit any symptoms at all.

“Everyone’s different,” Cook said. “It’s hard to tell the degree or severity of it.”

For more information, visit There is also a meeting once a month at the Portage Lake District Library where gluten-free recipes are exchanged.