By Andrea Holwegner, For The Calgary Herald

Larissa had been looking forward to dinner out with her two good friends all week. She was hoping for Italian but was outvoted by her girlfriends, who had started a gluten-free diet recommended by a health food store.

They heard that going gluten-free could help improve digestion, drop a few pounds and boost overall health.

Larissa wondered if this could help her with the bloating she regularly experienced. The trouble was she was a breadaholic and the thought of giving this up was unimaginable. She wondered if all the hype around gluten-free eating was the latest food fad or if it was truly something that could benefit her health.

What is gluten? Gluten is one of the proteins found naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crosscontaminated oats. Gluten in flour helps to provide baked goods such as bread with structure, strength and texture. Gluten can also be found in smaller amounts in foods such as commercial soups, salad dressings, sauces and other foods made with hydrolyzed wheat protein or other gluten-containing ingredients.

Contrary to popular belief, spelt bread also contains gluten.

Celiac disease versus gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is a medical concern where even small amounts of gluten cause the small intestine to become damaged and lose the ability to absorb essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, causing serious health concerns. A strict glutenfree diet is the only cure for celiac disease. For more information, visit celiac.ca.

Gluten intolerant would be an appropriate term to describe those who have tested negative for celiac disease but find that limiting large quantities of gluten-rich foods improves how they feel. Someone with a gluten intolerance would likely experience digestive issues such as gas or bloating with a big pasta meal or heaping bowl of breakfast cereal containing wheat. They may, however, be able to handle small amounts of gluten found in foods.

What to do if you suspect gluten is a problem. According to international celiac expert and author Shelly Case (glutenfreediet.ca), the prevalence of celiac disease is approximately one in every 100 people. Given that celiac disease is relatively common and living with this condition untreated can cause serious health effects, book an appointment with your doctor for initial screening (a blood test).

If your blood test comes back positive for celiac disease, your doctor will refer you to a gastrointestinal specialist for a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis. It is important to have proper testing before starting a gluten-free diet, so that you don’t have a false negative reading.

Can removing gluten help with weight loss? The new diet books claiming wheat is to blame for belly fat might sound convincing but are not endorsed by leading health authorities such as Health Canada. Long-term research says it is a deficit of calories that causes weight loss.

In other words, if you are overweight, reducing calories from foods containing carbohydrates, protein or fat will create the same level of weight loss over the long run.

Don’t be fooled by the extra initial weight loss of a low-carbohydrate diet; this indicates you are essentially dehydrated, since carbohydrates store fluid in the body.

The benefits of wheat. Removing wheat and other glutencontaining foods from your diet unnecessarily could do more harm than good. Wheat, rye, barley and oats supply key nutrients that are good for your health.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald