Northwest Health Summer 2012

Should You Try a Special Diet?

Eliminating foods from your diet may not be helpful to your health.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Special diets are very popular, and sometimes provide health benefits. But would giving up dairy — or another type of food — be beneficial for you? Group Health dietitian Jodi Augustine, RD, says the answer depends on your current health, and on what you hope to gain. She offers insights on three of the most popular special diets.

Gluten-Free

What it is: A diet that eliminates gluten which is found in such grains as wheat, barley, and many processed foods. "This is the darling now of special diets," says Augustine.

Benefits: If you have celiac disease, cutting gluten from your diet is the only treatment. Celiac disease causes visible damage to the intestinal tract, and prevents nutrient absorption. It can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Scientists are currently researching gluten intolerance, a condition that can cause symptoms such as headaches and nausea, in patients without a diagnosable gluten allergy.

Others who may benefit from a gluten-free diet are young children with gluten allergies, which cause hives or other allergic reactions, and people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes digestive problems.

Concerns: Unless you have one of the above conditions, eliminating gluten doesn't have proven health benefits. "The average person can break down gluten just fine," says Augustine. Cutting gluten from your diet should be done carefully to replace the nutrients and fiber contained in the whole grain foods eliminated.

Anti-Inflammatory

What it is: "There's no one definition of an anti-inflammatory diet," says Augustine.

The basic claim is that certain foods cause chronic inflammation in the body, leading to illness. Proponents say eliminating those foods will improve health. The diets eliminate most processed and high animal fat foods, and promote fresh choices such as vegetables, fruits, meats that are very low in saturated fats, and whole grains.

Benefits: Foods included in an anti-inflammatory diet are healthy, but there's no solid evidence that this diet lowers inflammation.

Concerns: Some versions of this diet recommend herbs, spices, and supplements. Large amounts of herbs can sometimes cause diarrhea, and some herbs and supplements interact negatively with medications. People with chronic kidney disease should consult a doctor before following these diets, as they can be overly high in phosphorous and potassium. They may also have too much fiber for some people with IBS.

Dairy-Free

What it is: A diet that eliminates milk and milk products.

Benefits: "This is good for a very specific population," says Augustine. Those who have lactose intolerance — an inability to break down lactose sugar found in dairy products — may have gas, bloating, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable symptoms when they consume dairy products.

Concerns: The calcium in dairy products can help protect children, teens, and all women from osteoporosis, and cutting out dairy can make it harder to get enough of the mineral.

In general, Augustine recommends patients have a discussion with their doctor or dietitian before starting any specialized diet, to get the right program for their health issues. "Otherwise, patients might not find the true causes of their symptoms, and end up feeling really lousy when they don't need to," says Augustine.

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