It seems like nowadays everybody and their mother’s brother is on a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale-a cross between wheat and rye. Individuals diagnosed with celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet for life because their body elicits an immune reaction to the protein and concomitant inflammation damages the small intestine lining causing malabsorption of some nutrients.
There are also some people who have intolerance to gluten, much like intolerance to the sugar lactose. It is not an autoimmune disease, but the symptoms can be similar to celiac disease such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, unexplained anemia, muscle cramps, leg numbness and bone or joint pain. Unlike celiac disease, there are no specific tests for diagnosing gluten sensitivity. The only way it can be determined is by ruling out celiac disease and wheat allergy and then seeing the response to a gluten-free diet and a gluten challenge. It is not known whether someone with sensitivity to gluten must strictly avoid gluten for life like those with celiac disease.
Gluten-free breads, pastas and baked goods are all becoming widely available in many grocery stores. Though the prevalence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity cases are on the rise, the main impetus for such products is due to consumer demand. Many people are removing gluten from their diet with the hopes that it will result in weight loss, relief from abdominal discomfort and a less inflammatory diet. While these results are all desirable, a lot of the time this is due to elimination of high fat, highly processed products like cakes, candies and processed meats- all foods that should be eaten sparingly, if at all. If you are truly going gluten-free that doesn’t just mean removing junk food and white pasta from the diet, it also means eliminating some salad dressings, chocolate, coffee, teas and yes, even beer (derived from barley). For somebody with celiac disease, starting a gluten-free diet can be very difficult when you really learn how many foods and products contain the protein gluten.
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One must also consider the nutritional drawbacks to going sans gluten. Most gluten-free products are made from refined flours and starches that are low in vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. However, there are some companies that enrich their products with iron and B vitamins at the same levels as gluten-containing breads, cereals, pastas and flours. There is a bit of a health halo around foods labeled gluten-free. Remember, a gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.
For those of you who are pro-gluten, whole wheat, barley and rye are excellent sources of protein, fiber, B vitamins, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and iron. Their removal is not necessary for a healthy diet.
If you think you are suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it is extremely important that you get tested before starting a gluten-free diet. Celiac’s is a serious condition that can be inaccurately diagnosed if you prematurely eliminate gluten from your diet.