Should you go gluten-free? It's a national trend, but Berkshire doctors say it's not for everyone


ADAMS -- Since going gluten-free, Amanda Stanssield says she feels reborn.

The 22-year-old Cheshire resident learned about the diet from a friend, and after boosting her energy, losing weight and ridding herself of bloating, she's bought into the idea that enriched wheat, or gluten, is toxic for her body. She's been on the diet for more than six months.

"It turns into a lifestyle," said Stanssield, who works at the gluten-free shop Eat to Total Health in North Adams.

Stanssield is one of a growing number of people who have adopted a gluten-free diet, forgoing a protein common to wheat, barley and rye. It can be a high-maintenance diet that requires reviewing the labels of nearly all food products, because gluten can be used as a thickener, and even as an ingredient in toothpaste.

But while those with autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease benefit from going gluten-free, others could lose out on valuable nutrients, according to health professionals.

"If you have no problems and your digestion is good, go ahead and enjoy the gluten," said Dr. Thomas Irwin, of Community Health Programs.

Stanssield says she has never been tested for celiac disease, but she has some of the symptoms.

"If I am going out with friends, then sometimes I'll break," Stanssield said. She said she commonly asks for a salad with olive oil and vinegar.

Typically a gluten-free diet is supplemented with buckwheat, millet, quinoa, rice, or potatoes.

Dietitian Erika Tilley, of Community Health Programs, said important vitamins should be kept in mind.

"[The gluten-free diet] is extremely inconvenient and low in fiber which can be a problem for a lot of things," Tilley said. "I think there are a lot of healthy foods with gluten."

Tilley said people are commonly tested for gluten sensitivity in the Berkshires. People with an Irish and Mediterranean background are more likely to be gluten intolerant, Irwin said.

Health professionals say people should try the diet and see if they can feel the difference. If not, they say, keep the gluten in your diet.

Conditions such as gastrointestinal complaints, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease all could be worsened with the ingestion of gluten.

Stanssield said the gluten-free diet helped her to live a normal life. She said 20 percent of her diet continues to include gluten. When she does eat gluten, her body negatively reacts several days later.

"The key is preparation," Stanssield said. "Know what you're doing and what to avoid and have everything ready."

Local celiac disease support group chair Renee Tassone, who runs Eat to Total Health, said the group draws about 65 members. There are 15 to 20 members who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, she said.

The group includes many who are dealing with other autoimmune conditions.

"I tell them to take little bits at a time," said Tassone. "To keep it as simple as possible. The more whole foods you stick with, the less label reading you have to do."

Irwin said asaid forgoing gluten for a period of time won't create a situation where the body can no longer tolerate gluten.

"For the majority of people that are healthy that don't have bowel system problems, muscle aches, and fatigue, going gluten-free won't improve their health any more," Irwin said.

To reach John Sakata:,
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