Gluten-Free - Why is it So Prevalent Today?
Since receiving my certification as a Natural Foods Chef in August I have a lot of people asking me why everything is gluten-free all of a sudden and should they be eating gluten-free themselves.
This isn't so easy or straightforward a question to answer, but I'll do my best.
First we need to know what gluten is. Gluten is a particular protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Some say oats as well, but that's not so. Oats do not contain gluten, but they are often processed on the same machines that process wheat, barley, and rye so they are contaminated with gluten particles. It is possible to buy certified gluten-free oats if necessary.
There have always been people who cannot break down gluten because of a genetic inability. Unfortunately for these people there was little knowledge of gluten and its associated problems until the past perhaps 5-10 years. Alessio Fasano, an Italian doctor who now works as the director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine was one of the first doctor's to link GI symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and nausea with Celiac disease and/or gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
Today, there are blood tests that can help determine if a patient has Celiac disease, which is an actual autoimmune disorder that causes serious damage to the small intestine when gluten is eaten. For the 1% of the U.S. population that actually has Celiac disease the treatment is relatively simple: do not eat gluten. I say, relatively, because it seems that gluten is found in more than just bread and pasta. It is also found in soy sauce, BBQ sauce, and the like. For a person who has been diagnosed with Celiac disease, it is imperative that they have a serious discussion with their doctor about what this means to them and their life. They also will most likely need to find a well qualified nutritionist who will properly educate them on how to identify foods that contain gluten. For a person with Celiac disease, eating gluten is like eating a food that is slowly killing off a part of your small intestine. This is a seriuos diagnosis that needs to be taken seriously.
For the 6% to7% of Americans, like me, who are found not to have Celiac disease but, instead, are gluten sensitive or intolerant the problem is one more of not feeling well than doing serious damage to our GI tract. That said, there is growing evidence that many people with IBD - inflammatory bowel disease, are tending to be gluten sensitive because in addition to our Crohn's disease or Colitis we also may have leaky gut. Leaky gut is when the large intesting begins to look more like a fish net than a well-woven piece of fabric. These little holes that are found in the gut allow food that we eat to leak out of the gut and into the bloodstream and this is what can cause the feelings of gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. Again, the treatment for those who are found to be gluten sensitive or intolerant is the same: don't eat foods containing gluten.
For those who have the sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, determining this can be a frustrating and sometimes long road. Many people who see their doctor because of symptoms like bloating, gas, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea or constipation often are told they have IBS - irritable bowel syndrome. Really the only way to know if you have a gluten intolerance and if that is what is causing or contributing to your symptoms is to conduct a food challenge. This should only be done, however, after you have been tested for Celiac disease. Why? Because the food challenge is going to require that you remove all foods that contain gluten from your diet, and once you do this a gluten allergy won't show up on a blood test unless you start eating gluten-containing foods again for at least 2 weeks.
If you have been tested for Celiac disease and the test came back negative but you are still experiencing the aforementioned symptoms then talk to your doctor or nutritionist about doing a food challenge. This is best done under the supervision of a doctor so you are sure you are conducting the challenge properly and the results can be interpreted clearly.
Another point to make about many gluten-free foods is that eating a gluten-free diet doesn't necessarily mean you are eating a healthier diet. In an article in the November 2011 issue of Health magazine, the author points out that simply swapping out your typical foods like bread, crackers, cakes, and cookies with gluten-free alternatives could set you up to actually end up gaining weight because many of these products are high in fat and sugar and calories.
If you need to eat gluten-free because you actually have Celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance then it is important that you learn, with the help of a nutritionist, dietician, or natural foods chef, how to eat balanced meals with healthy proteins, fats, complex carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables.
Elizabeth Roberts is the author of Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Journey of Success. She is also a Certified Natural Foods Chef.