What is gluten, and why should I consider a gluten free diet?

What is gluten, and why should I consider giving it up?

Bread contains gluten – should you give it up? Freeimages.com/ J. Gabriel

Do you know someone who has adopted a gluten free diet? This is becoming more and more common. From more people being diagnosed with celiac/coeliac disease (more on that later) to people discovering that they just don’t tolerate wheat products well, giving up gluten can promote better health and decrease symptoms in a number of conditions. But what is gluten, anyway?

WHAT IS GLUTEN?

Gluten is a protein composite found in certain cereal grains, including wheat, rye, barley and spelt. The word “gluten” is Latin for glue, and this is basically what gluten does. It is sticky and is what gives dough its elastic property. It also helps dough rise and gives the final baked product a chewy texture.

WHAT FOODS CONTAIN GLUTEN?

The more obvious sources of gluten include bread, cakes, cookies, pasta, pizza and crackers. Some less obvious places you’ll find gluten include sauces and condiments, soups, ice creams, in a coating on frozen French fries and even in ground meat products like meatloaf and hamburgers. People with celiac disease and gluten allergies have to be extremely vigilant to avoid accidentally eating gluten, as it sneaks in to all kinds of foods you wouldn’t expect. In some cases, even cross-contamination from a kitchen (sharing a toaster with a gluten-eater, for example) can be enough to trigger symptoms.

WHY GIVE IT UP?

One big reason would be if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. In people with celiac disease, one of the proteins in gluten causes an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine, leading to the symptoms like pain and discomfort in the digestive tract, constipation and diarrhea, fatigue, and more. Vitamin deficiencies are often found in people with celiac disease because it can the small intestine to fail to properly absorb nutrients from food.

The first step in diagnosing celiac disease is a blood test; after that, your doctor might want to do further testing, like an endoscopy, or may do other tests just to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. If you think you might have celiac disease, talk to your doctor. NOTE: If you have already adopted a gluten-free diet, tests might not pick up that you have celiac disease even if you do. If you’ve already adopted a gluten-free diet, it may be necessary to re-introduce gluten for a short time in order to produce accurate test results. Do this under the supervision of your doctor.

In rare cases, people can be allergic to wheat, just like you might be allergic to peanuts or shellfish. In this case, when wheat is eaten, the reaction can be anything from hives to anaphylactic shock. Obviously, if you are allergic to a food, it must be avoided. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have any undiagnosed food allergies.

Even if you don’t have celiac disease or an allergy, your body may simply not tolerate gluten well. Since you’re reading this, you may already suspect this might be the case for you; symptoms are similar to those of celiac disease and include stomach aches, constipation and/or diarrhea, fatigue, bloating, gas, and a general feeling of being unwell. If you experience these symptoms regularly after consuming foods containing gluten, it’s possible you are gluten sensitive, or gluten intolerant.

My experience with gluten intolerance

You can try an elimination diet to see if gluten causes problems for you. Again, this is best done under the supervision of your doctor, but the general idea is to eliminate all the foods that commonly cause intolerances, including gluten, dairy, soy, corn and citrus. After a few weeks of avoiding all these foods, they are re-introduced one at a time. So, you’d eat a bunch of bread and pasta for a few days, then go back to the base level elimination diet, and see how your body reacts. Once the gluten has cleared your system, you’d test dairy, and so on, until you determine which foods your body doesn’t tolerate.

I DON’T FEEL WELL WHEN I EAT GLUTEN. NOW WHAT?

The main treatment for all of the above conditions is to adopt a gluten free diet. This just means you would avoid eating foods containing gluten. But don’t worry; there are many breads, pastas, baked goodies and more out there that don’t contain gluten. As gluten free diets become more common, these products are becoming easier to find, less expensive, and tastier! You can make your own gluten free breads and baked goods at home. Restaurants are also getting better at accommodating gluten free diets and bigger chains often have gluten free menus available upon request.

If you’re just starting out, it can feel a bit overwhelming. You’ll need to read labels on all the foods you purchase at the grocery store. You’ll need to ask questions and modify your order at restaurants. You’ll also need to maintain constant vigilance against cross-contamination if you are very sensitive or allergic. There are books you can read, mobile phone and tablet applications you can utilize, and word-of-mouth from your gluten free friends and colleagues will be invaluable.

It’s hard at first; you may slip up and eat gluten, intentionally or not. But, you may find that you begin to feel better when you avoid wheat and other gluten-containing grains. Then it becomes easier to stick with, and “cheating” becomes less and less appealing. Eventually you may reach the point where the symptoms you’ll suffer for eating gluten outweigh the pleasure you’ll get from eating that piece of cake, and that’s when you’ve reached acceptance.

My aim is to provide you with everything I’ve learned; to provide good information and helpful tools to get you started on your gluten free diet. From product reviews to recipes, I’ll point you to the best options out there in gluten free eating. I’ll tell you which foods are safe, which foods to avoid, and how to substitute gluten free options for all the gluten-containing foods you love. I’ll help you avoid accidentally getting “glutened” by knowing where the sneaky sources of gluten may be, and teach you how to work around them. Essentially, I aim to provide the information I couldn’t find when I find gave up gluten – it was hard for me, but it won’t be as hard for you!

Leave a Reply