To Be or Not to Be Gluten-Free #1

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If you have had a Spirited Life/CHI health screening in the past year, you have likely interacted with me at some point. In both the spring and fall of 2013, I counseled screening participants on their results at many churches across the state and, as of April of this year, I am now coordinating the screenings. The blog below is the first in a series of nutritional topics that arose during my discussions with many of you. Thus, I am responding to your questions. Upcoming topics include the lowdown on eggs, sorting through sweeteners and sugars, and the perils of trans fats. Stay tuned!

Part I – What is Gluten and How Can it Affect Me?

Gluten-free eating has become very trendy and the market for gluten-free products is booming. Many grocery stores now stock gluten-free products, some restaurants provide gluten-free items in addition to their standard fare, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jenny McCarthy, and Oprah Winfrey have touted the benefits of gluten-less diets. However, is eliminating gluten from your diet the way to go? If you have celiac disease, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. If you are not gluten sensitive, the answer may not be straightforward and information populating the Internet can be confusing. Thus, let’s start with what is clear-cut.

What is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains, such as rye and barley, which gives bread its sponge-like Wheat Pic3texture. When individuals with celiac disease ingest gluten, the immune system attacks the small intestine. Over time, the small intestine loses its ability to absorb nutrients, such as calcium and iron, and severe nutritional deficiencies can develop. Even small amounts of gluten can cause a lot of damage and the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet.

Common symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea and weight loss, although many people experience little, if any, digestive distress. Some people have a sensitivity to gluten without having celiac disease, which means that they cannot metabolize gluten, and may have symptoms as severe as those of celiac disease. Still others have a wheat allergy, which is one of the most common allergies in the United States. Simply inhaling wheat flour can trigger an allergic reaction for some.

People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must eat a gluten-free diet to feel better. Many foods are naturally gluten-free, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, legumes, nuts, and dairy products. A number of grains like rice, corn, potatoes, quinoa, and nut flours are also gluten-free.

While many commercial products are labeled ‘gluten-free,’ some are not. However, as of August 5th, 2014, all foods labeled gluten-free must meet the requirements of gluten-free labeling (you can read more here at the Food and Drug Administration website). It is important to read labels and remember that ‘wheat-free’ does not necessarily mean ‘gluten-free’. Soups and sauces, for example, are one of the largest sources of gluten since many manufacturers use gluten as a thickener. (For a complete listing of foods that comprise a gluten-free diet, please visit the Celiac Disease Foundation website here.)

Individuals with a wheat allergy should, of course, avoid foods that contain wheat. In addition to gluten, wheat contains other proteins that include albumin, globulin, and gliadin. Most people are allergic to only one of these. Again, it is extremely important to read labels and, in this case, ‘gluten-free’ does not necessarily mean ‘wheat-free’. In Europe, for example, foods may be labeled gluten-free but contain wheat starch, the powder remaining after gluten removal from wheat flour. Wheat starch is often used as a thickening agent in gravies and processed foods. Some unexpected sources of wheat may be ice cream, potato chips, hot dogs, candy, salad dressings, soy sauce, marinara sauce, and beer. (For more information on wheat allergy and foods to avoid, visit the Food Allergy Research and Education website here.)

Please consult with your doctor if you suspect that you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or before making any dietary changes.

UP NEXT – Part 2 – Your Wheat is Not Your Grandmother’s Wheat

-Holly Hough, PhD

References:  Providence Health and Services; Mayo Clinic: Symptoms; Mayo Clinic: Wheat Allergy; Internet Symposium on Food Allergens: Identification of Wheat Allergens; Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: Wheat Allergy; CeliAct: Is Modified Food Starch Safe for Celiacs?

Image from Flickr user Martin LaBar, via CC

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