Understanding the Gluten Free Trend

You may have heard something in the news or through a friend about cutting gluten out of your diet for health reasons. Perhaps you wondered if you should go “gluten free” as well.

Going gluten free is the newest trend on the dieting scene and
the food industry is catching on. On grocery shelves now you are likely to find an entire section dedicated to gluten free products. This is great news if you are gluten intolerant. Just a few years ago, it was all but impossible to find a selection of gluten free foods. But what about the rest of us? Are there health benefits to going gluten free?

First of all, what is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, Kamut, barley, rye and sometimes oats. It is what gives bread dough its elasticity. Most of us can eat gluten with no health problems. However, up to a tenth of the population suffers from some form of gluten sensitivity. The degree of sensitivity varies widely, and depending on how sensitive you are, you can suffer severe health consequences.

Below are the various degrees of gluten intolerance explained.

Gluten Intolerance (Celiac Disease)

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body is unable to digest gluten and affects about 1% of the population. This leads to damage of the intestines and poor nutrient absorption, which over time can lead to malnutrition, other auto immune diseases, thyroid disease, and cancer. People who have been diagnosed with celiac disease are never able to eat gluten foods; even a small amount will cause damage to their intestines.

A diagnosis for celiac disease is made after a positive blood test showing gluten antibodies and a biopsy of the small bowel.

Celiac disease is often undiagnosed for years, since there are over 300 symptoms for the disease. Remember, you know your body best. If you have been experiencing unexplained but persistent gastrointestinal  symptoms and suspect gluten intolerance, try eliminating all gluten from your diet for one week. If you notice an improvement, then press your doctor for a blood test to check for gluten antibodies.

Celiac disease runs in families. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with celiac disease, then other family members are also at risk and should be aware of the symptoms.

Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

When someone is diagnosed with non celiac gluten sensitivity, he often experiences similar symptoms as someone with celiac disease but does not suffer intestinal damage. Symptoms include headaches, joint pain, fatigue, and bloating that occurs hours to days after ingesting gluten. Some estimates suggest that around 1 in 10 people suffer from some degree of gluten sensitivity. Currently there are no diagnostic tests that can determine if you are gluten sensitive. The only way to find out if you are sensitive to gluten is by eliminating all gluten from your diet for one week or more and observing if symptoms improve.

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy should not be confused with celiac disease. When you are allergic to wheat protein, your immune system triggers an allergic reaction that can range from mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc.) to life threatening symptoms (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.).
A wheat allergy is common among young children, and they often outgrow it. However, you will never outgrow gluten intolerance and must follow a strict gluten free diet for the rest of your life.

Should you go Gluten Free?

If you are not gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant then there is no reason to abstain from gluten in your diet, just as you do not need to avoid milk if you are not lactose intolerant. Whole grains containing gluten also contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Most importantly, listen to your body. If you feel bloated or experience other gastrointestinal symptoms after eating bread or pasta then avoid gluten foods for one week and see if your symptoms clear up. If you notice an improvement of symptoms then you may indeed be gluten sensitive. Otherwise, feel free to enjoy a nice bowl of pasta guilt free!

To learn more about symptoms of gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity visit:
http://www.celiaccentral.org
http://business.time.com/2013/03/13/why-were-wasting-billions-on-gluten-free-food/
http://www.celiac.org/

Please be sure to check out my website for health tips and recipes at www.healthy-start.net. And thanks or reading!

Dora Meyer, RN, BSN, MSPH

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