The Gluten Dilemma–Your Questions Answered

What is Gluten?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. So any food products that contain these ingredients or derivatives may also contain gluten. Gluten is therefore found in a variety of food items from breads, pastas, crackers, and cookies to other foods such as some salad dressings, sauces and even some medications and lip balms. In other words, it is in a major portion of the foods we eat.

Is Gluten Bad for Me?

For the average person, gluten is not a problem. There are some portions of the population, however, such as those with Celiac’s disease or gluten intolerance that this is a problem. The prevalence of Celiac’s Disease is now 1 in 100 people, though it is believed a large proportion of people with Celiac’s are undiagnosed. The symptoms may include gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, headaches, tingling in the extremities or a person might be asymptomatic. It can take up to 10 years to get diagnosed. But as awareness has grown, physicians are more aware of the red flags of Celiac’s and are diagnosing more frequently. With Celiac’s Disease a person’s body sees the gluten as foreign in the small intestines and attacks it. In turn, the intestinal lining is damaged which in turns leads to absorption problems of all nutrients. It is not uncommon for someone with Celiac’s to have iron deficiency anemia or even osteoporosis because of malabsorption.

How is Celiac’s Disease Diagnosed?

To properly diagnose, a person must be eating gluten in their diet. A blood test is done to test for antibodies and if found, then a biopsy is done of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis. Gluten intolerance might have similar symptoms but there is no damage to the small intestine. The only treatment for both Celiac’s disease and gluten intolerance is to follow a strict gluten-free diet.

What does Gluten Free Mean?

A gluten free diet avoids all foods containing gluten. A person must become very adept at reading food labels to avoid all traces of gluten. But because gluten is found in many common whole grains, which are a great source of iron, fiber and B vitamins, it is important to replace those foods in the diet with others that are naturally gluten free but also contain the same nutrients. Gluten free foods are becoming increasingly available, which is good news for those that suffer from Celiac’s disease and gluten intolerance. However, these foods are more expensive and often times contain more calories, fat, sugar and sodium than their regular counterparts. And they may not be enriched with the same nutrients found in gluten-containing whole grains.

So what should you do if you need to be on a gluten-free diet? Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are naturally gluten-free. Whole grains that are naturally gluten free include rice, quinoa, wild rice, millet, teff, amaranth and sorghum. Use highly processed gluten free foods sparingly. Also, check with a registered dietitian to ensure your diet is nutritionally adequate.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have a Problem with Gluten?

Before going on a gluten-free diet, you should speak to a physician about your symptoms. Also, keep a food and symptom journal to help with diagnosis if it is gluten that is really causing your problems. Do not start on a gluten-free diet unless you have been told to do so by a physician or a registered dietitian.

Gluten free diets have gained much attention in the media as well as in the marketplace. The gluten free food segment is growing at incredible rates, sales having increased 92% globally over the past 5 years. In 2010, gluten-free products accounted for $2.5 billion in sales globally. In the US alone, it was $1.2 million. It is predicted that global sales will reach $3.4 billion by 2015.

So what does this mean? On one hand, it is great news for those with Celiac’s and gluten intolerance that special foods are more widely available. But at the same time the marketing messages can be confusing. Gluten free foods are not necessarily any healthier than those containing gluten for the average person that does not have an issue eating gluten. Also, if you do not have Celiac’s or gluten intolerance then avoiding gluten may not be a panacea for what ails you. Get a medical opinion first.