Vail Daily Health feature: Giving up gluten — good or bad idea? |

Vail Daily Health feature: Giving up gluten — good or bad idea?

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily
Dietians Melanie Hendershott, left, and Katie Mazzia, right, stand next to a display of various gluten-full and gluten free options in the Vail Valley Medical Center's cafeteria as they consider the pros and cons of being gluten-free.
Dominique Taylor/Dominique Taylor Photography |

Editor’s note: This story first ran in Vail Health magazine.

there’s no question that gluten-free diets have taken America by storm, but it’s important to keep in mind that gluten itself is not the bad guy. A protein composite derived from wheat and a few other grains, gluten is not an inherently unhealthy component of a diet like refined sugar and saturated fat are. It is simply a substance to which many people have in recent years discovered their digestive tracts and other bodily functions disagree. This lack of harmony might present itself through a series of uncomfortable symptoms or, more seriously, a diagnosis of celiac disease.

“People with gluten intolerance either have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity,” said Katie Mazzia, clinical dietitian at Vail Valley Medical Center. “Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the lining of the small intestines. If you have celiac disease, your body will not absorb nutrients properly.”

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When the body doesn’t absorb nutrients, it can lead to serious health problems such as osteoporosis, anemia and vitamin D deficiency. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance often have the same symptoms. A person with either often knows there is an issue because consuming something containing gluten — bread, pasta, beer, many kinds of sauces and even vitamins, pills and cosmetics — causes one or many of a variety of symptoms: bloating and stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, joint pain and vomiting, to name a few. The cause of celiac disease, which can only be confirmed by blood tests and screening, is unknown, but it is believed to be hereditary and more prevalent in females and Caucasians. The treatment is a strict, gluten-free diet. For individuals who are sensitive to gluten but who don’t have celiac disease, choosing to go without it is more a matter of their own comfort (preventing symptoms) rather than to sidestep or mitigate a major health concern.

“If you have some symptoms of gluten intolerance, seek the advice of your doctor first, then possibly see a gastrointestinal specialist for diagnosis of celiac disease,” said VVMC dietitian Melanie Hendershott. “After properly educating yourself on gluten-free eating, you can adopt a gluten-free diet to see if this helps your symptoms. You will need to trial the diet for at least two weeks to see if your symptoms improve, but it’s a good idea to try it for a whole 30 days.”


Rachel Zehms, a 36-year-old Vail local, was never diagnosed with celiac disease, but 11 years ago, when she realized that drinking beer and eating pizza, bread and pasta was causing severe joint pain, she cut gluten out of her diet.

“Within 24 hours after eating a sandwich or anything with gluten, I’d notice swelling in my finger joints, then it moved to my shoulders and legs. There were times I was in so much pain I could barely walk at night. I couldn’t pick up a glass of water,” she said. “I decided to avoid gluten, and I felt 80 percent better within two weeks.”

By now, avoiding gluten is second nature to Zehms, but she said it takes a bit of effort and research for anyone newly discovering a gluten intolerance.

“The most challenging thing is when you’re looking for something affordable and quick. You can throw down for a gluten-free pizza, but it costs almost triple the price,” she said. “You need to educate yourself on all the things that have gluten. Sometimes it’s in things you wouldn’t expect, like sauces.”

When shopping, it’s comforting for GF (gluten-free) eaters to know that all fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and meats are naturally gluten free, as are many other foods. As evidenced by the $12.4 billion in annual gluten-free product sales (according to a 2012 study by market researcher SPINS), you can find a GF version of just about anything.


Keep in mind, gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier. In many cases, they may actually be less healthy.

“Gluten-free packaged foods can be higher in fat and calories and lower in B vitamins and iron,” Mazzia points out. “When you take out that gluten, you have to add different mixed flours or potato starch. I always recommend reading the nutrition labels and buying gluten-free products with at least three grams of fiber per serving.”

For someone who has no issues with gluten, Mazzia said it’s always healthier to choose whole wheat over white breads and pastas. She cites quinoa, faro, bulgur, brown rice and wild rice as high-fiber grains. Of these, only quinoa and rice are gluten-free. Other healthy GF grains include millet, corn and buckwheat.

“Gluten-free diets are not for everyone,” Hendershott said. “It’s never a bad idea to add more variety to your diet using popular gluten-free grains, so feel free to purchase some GF pastas, cereals or cook with more quinoa or rice as sides rather than breads or wheat products. You’ll always find something GF nearly everywhere, even if it means a burger or chicken sandwich with no bun or a salad. Most important is educating yourself on how sensitive you are — can you handle a little cross-contamination or none at all? What foods contain gluten? And find a good balance of other foods to substitute for the gluten favorites in your life.”

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