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Why You Probably Don't Need to Avoid Gluten or Dairy

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Updated July 08, 2014

Baked goods and milk.
Crezalyn Nerona Uratsuji/Getty Images

Going gluten-free has become a big trend, and a number of people think they should avoid dairy products as well. Most people don't need to avoid gluten and by doing so you run the risk of suffering from some nutritional deficiencies. 

Problems with dairy products are more common than problems with gluten. The main reason for consuming dairy products is to get enough calcium, and while dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, you can get it from other foods.

What's the deal with these conditions?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It helps give bread its shape. People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity need to eat a gluten-free diet -- otherwise they can suffer from some terrible digestive symptoms, weight loss and other health problems.

Dairy products contain lactose a form of sugar. People with lactose intolerance can't absorb the lactose and have intestinal problems when they consume dairy products.

These conditions aren't all that rare, but they don't affect everyone.

Celiac disease affects about 1 person out of every 140. Lactose intolerance is more common, especially in specific populations. About 1 of every 5 Caucasians has it, and about 80 percent of Asians and Native Americans, 75 percent of African Americans and about half of Hispanics have it.

If you think have any of these conditions, you should speak with your health care provider about your concerns. If you do have a problem, a dietitian or nutritionist can help you set up a diet that takes these conditions into consideration and still eat a balanced and nutritious diet.

But I thought eating gluten made me gain weight?

It doesn't. Consuming more calories than you burn is the reason people gain weight. There may be differences in your metabolism compared to other people, and certain health conditions can affect your weight, but ultimately it's calories that go in compared to calories burned.

Fad diets (like the Paleolithic diet or alkaline diet) typically require you to avoid specific food groups such as grains or dairy products. Or they pick on specific foods that contain certain components like gluten or phytic acid, saying they are bad for you, or they may refer to them as anti-nutrients -- something that sounds much scary, but isn't.

Don't follow a fad diet. Just don't.

Most fad diets come and go quickly - probably because they're difficult to follow long-term, and they don't help you lose or maintain your weight.

These fad diets aren't based on credible research studies for long-term loss or any beneficial health claims, but they may try to sound scientific. Taking a few minutes to review their sources reveals a lack of evidence beyond opinion and conjecture.

The best way to watch your weight and provide your body with all the nutrition you need is to follow a healthfully balanced diet. Choose a variety of foods from each food group to ensure sufficient intake of macronutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals:

  • Fruits and vegetables: two or three cups of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Grains and cereals: at least half your grains should be whole grains.
  • Protein sources: choose low-fat protein sources like lean meat, poultry, seafood, fish or legumes.
  • Dairy foods: you need two or three servings of dairy or other calcium-rich foods every day.
  • Fats and oils: get a little bit of healthful fat like omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.

It's also important to watch your portion sizes and keep your calorie intake to a level that lets you reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Source:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating." Accessed February 9, 2013. http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8356.

Harvard Health Letter. "Considering a Gluten-free Diet." Accessed July 3. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Health_Letter/2013/April/considering-a-gluten-free-diet

Medscape. "Lactose Intolerance." Accessed July 3, 2014. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/187249-overview#a0199.

Rubio-Tapia A1, Ludvigsson JF, Brantner TL, Murray JA, Everhart JE. "The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States." Am J Gastroenterol. 2012 Oct;107(10):1538-44; quiz 1537, 1545.

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