Do Gluten-Free Diets Benefit Those Without Celiac Disease?

By Dr. Mallika Marshall, WBZ-TV

BOSTON (CBS) — For more than two decades, 45-year old Sharone Jelden was constantly sick. She had stomach aches, joint pains, chronic fatigue, and anemia.

“I was having a wide variety of symptoms for a very long time,” she says.

Three years ago, Jelden was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease. Within two weeks of starting a strict gluten-free diet, all of her symptoms went away.

“The gluten-free diet for celiacs is like insulin for diabetics,” says Dr. Alessio Fasano, a world-renowned Celiac expert at Mass. General Hospital and author of the new book “Gluten Freedom.”

Dr. Fasano says with Celiac disease, a person’s immune system attacks a protein called gluten, found in many grains like wheat, barley and rye, and that immune response can lead to widespread inflammation.

“If you have Celiac disease and you don’t go on a gluten-free diet, you die,” he says. “Slowly, but you die.”

Fortunately, for patients like Jelden, there are now tons of gluten-free products available on store shelves. Many people who don’t have a gluten issue are now buying these products instead of the “real” thing.

Dr. Fasano says at some point in their lives, 100 million Americans will choose to eat gluten-free and that the diet has turned into a multi-billion dollar business.

“If you ask yourself, who are these people and why do they go on a gluten-free diet? Well, the interesting answer is that the vast majority don’t have business going on a gluten-free diet,” Dr. Fasano says.

Gluten-free products aren’t necessarily healthier and aren’t necessarily going to help you lose weight. They’re often enriched with more sugar and fats to make them palatable.

Dr. Fasano went gluten-free for Lent this year and says it wasn’t a pleasant experience. “It’s socially isolating,” Dr. Fasano admits. “It’s technically difficult.”

Although Jelden is thrilled to have more dietary options at the grocery store, she wouldn’t choose to eat this way if she didn’t have to.

“If I did not have to live gluten-free, I would have no idea why I would want to spend a lot more money for the food that is not nutritionally better for you. It’s harder to find, and I think it tastes worse,” she says.

You can read Sharone Jelden’s blog at The Gut Reaction and find out more information about Celiac disease at MGH’s Center for Celiac Research and Treatment.

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