The summer after my first year of college, I lived for three months with family in Melbourne (pronounced “Melbin”), Australia, nannying for my twin cousins Sammy and Marcus. S & M were almost three at the time, and had already developed quite the personalities. Sammy was affectionate with most everyone, while Marcus liked to stick to himself. As an introvert, I felt somewhat of a kinship with Marcus, and always cheered his solo ventures with Legos, reading and so on.

During my stay in Oz, I was lucky enough to sample countless delicious meals out on the town. My cousin’s husband works part-time as a restaurant developer, and has helped many a Melbourne hot-spot get going. Coupled with he and his wife’s busy schedules, we ate most meals out together as a five-some. While I did eventually desire the comfort and simplicity of a home-cooked meal, I greatly enjoyed the ceremony of meals artfully and delectably prepared in the many eateries Melbourne has to offer.

In our habitual quest for cafés and bistros that would appeal to three adults as well as two small children, we spent a fair amount of time cruising the streets of the city. Relishing as always time in the car as “time off” (with the exception of the occasional plea for the boys to “play nice, please!”), I spent these car rides watching the urban scenery pass by. From an abundance of kosher bakeries to “Op shops” (thrift stores to non-Ozzies), there was so much to see, and I loved taking it all in.

Just days after arriving and settling into my new routine as nanny and frequent restaurant-patron, I began to notice something I had yet to see on any sort of scale in the U.S.– every (and I do mean every) pizzeria, café and bakery we passed displayed signs advertising their gluten-free options. Because I had taken Nutrition and Health my previous semester at Smith, I knew that gluten was the protein responsible for wheat pasta and bread’s trademark elasticity. What I wasn’t familiar with was such a ubiquity in eating options for people following a gluten-free diet. Why, I asked my cousin, was gluten-free so common an offering at the neighborhood bistro? Were Australians uniquely plagued with celiac disease?

Yes and no, she responded. According to the Coeliac Society of Australia (gotta love that Commonwealth spelling!), celiac affects roughly one in 100 Australians, although the Society posits that as many as 75% of the afflicted population is unaware they have the autoimmune disease.

While it is unlikely that Australians are inherently more susceptible to celiac disease (many Ozzies, I will remind you, share the same Northern European genetic background as a large portion of Americans), it is clear that Australians are, as in other arenas, more advanced in their response to and treatment of celiac in the population.

Still, with the disease garnering more and more attention in recent years, it is unsurprising that many Americans have begun to consider going gluten-free. Everyone’s favorite diet whore went 21 days in 2008 without gluten, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and animal products. The View host Elizabeth Hasslebeck adheres to a gluten-free diet, as do a bevy of other celebrities.

If abstaining from gluten made Oprah and Ms. Hasslebeck “feel better,” why not you, then? What have you got to lose?

Improved health and quality of life, if you are indeed suffering from celiac or gluten-intolerance.

And the rest of us? Can simply slashing gluten help the average American without gluten-intolerance or celiac enjoy better health and lose weight?

No, say many dieticians and physicians who have experienced an influx of clientele convinced of the ability of a gluten-free diet to cure them of excess weight and other health complaints. If going gluten-free is not a medical necessity, “there’s probably no benefit” to adopting such a diet, says Massachusetts-based dietician Tricia Thompson, R.D., editor of glutenfreedietitian.com.

And the improved health of celiac/gluten-intolerance sufferers on a strict gluten-free diet? Such effects are not applicable to those without such health issues, unfortunately. Feeling “better and more energetic” on a gluten-free diet, says Thompson, is a result of those previously suffering from gluten-intolerance having felt so sick previously.

What of the argument that going without gluten can prevent and/or alleviate autism? Celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy has famously embraced a gluten-free diet for her autistic son Evan, sharing that a gluten-free diet helped improve his autistic symptoms.

But gluten-free diets tend also to eliminate casein, a protein found in milk that might be responsible for the abatement of symptoms instead. And objective clinical studies have not been able to show that the diet works in autistic patients. A May University of Rochester study that examined the effects of a strict gluten- and casein-free diet on 14 autistic preschoolers reported “no discernable effects” on autistic behavior, attention, sleep and other symptoms.

That said, a lack of conclusive evidence of the diet’s capability to mitigate autistic symptoms should not rule out attempting diet therapy, according to Timothy Buie, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Mass. General Hospital in Boston and author of a recent report in Pediatrics journal that concluded that a gluten-free diet is far from a cure for the developmental disorder.

Still, what it comes down to is this– a gluten-free diet will help alleviate the many uncomfortable symptoms of gluten-intolerance and celiac disease, but will not for those without such health problems. Nor is a gluten-free diet a surefire way to lose weight for those without a biological aversion to gluten.

So approach headlines that tout the ability of gluten-free diets to do x, y and z with skepticism, and remember that a dietary intervention is only as effective as its necessity.

P.S. Apologies to Oprah for the “diet whore” comment; I love the woman and think she is a fabulous role model. Still, she has sampled every diet known to man…

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