What is gluten?
Gluten, as commonly used, is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is a large protein made up of two parts that forms sticky bonds and helps make bread dough stretchy, able rise, and hold bubbles. “Wheat” also includes older varieties and crosses like spelt, kamut, einkorn, and triticale.
Oats contain a similar but different protein. Some people with celiac disease cannot eat any oats, but most people with celiac disease can eat special oats that are not grown near wheat or otherwise contaminated with gluten. Something like Quaker Oats from the grocery store has probably been grown near or processed with wheat and contains a small amount of it.
Why do people avoid it?
Mostly, people who avoid it have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. In celiac disease, the immune system senses the gluten and reacts by attacking and destroying the intestines. In gluten sensitivity, the immune systems reacts negatively to gluten but may or may not destroy the intestines. Symptoms are quite varied, but may include fatigue, anemia, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, joint pain, gas, bloating, or weight loss. Two other diseases, gluten ataxia (neurological problems) and dermatitis heptiformis (skin rashes) are forms of celiac disease. Some people think that gluten sensitivity is an early form of celiac disease.
Tests for both conditions are both prone to false negatives (up to one in five tests) and may involve blood tests, biopsies, and specific diets. There are also people who feel better if they avoid gluten. There is a small amount of evidence showing that people who have genes that make them prone to developing celiac disease feel better if they avoid gluten, even if they do not have celiac disease.
Wow! Is that hard?
Sometimes. Any prepared food is a risk– not only do you need to worry about reading the label, but some people have to call the company to make sure that something like rice crackers weren’t made next to something like wheat crackers because the wheat flour could have floated through the air to land on the rice crackers. You have to be careful to avoid eating things off of a plate that has crackers or bread on it; you can’t use a toaster that has had normal bread in it. Things like jars of peanut butter have to be separate so crumbs don’t contaminate your food. Very sensitive people can’t even share a kitchen with people who eat gluten because the tiny amounts of gluten spread by someone not washing their hands and touching doors, handles, etc can make them sick. Fortunately, more people and companies are aware of gluten and more safe options are available.
Isn’t gluten-free food expensive?
Replacement foods, like breads made from corn, potato, and rice flours, can be very expensive. Fortunately, there are lots of affordable alternatives like rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn tortillas, and less common whole grains like buckwheat, millet, quinoa, amaranth and teff. Fruit, vegetables, beans, and meats all cost the same!
Is gluten-free healthier?
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten free is definitely healthier. Eating gluten when you have either condition can lead to other diseases and nutritional deficiencies. Otherwise, it depends on what you eat! Healthy foods like eggs, beans, fruit and vegetables are gluten free, but so are many types of chocolate and french fries.
Isn’t this just a trend?
Well, there are some people who follow the diet as a trend. However, more people are being diagnosed because doctors are looking for the disease now. In the 1950s, celiac disease was less common and thought to only occur in children who would outgrow it. Today, we know that it occurs in at least 0.5%-1% of people and that it can develop at any age. There is no cure, though, so people must stay on a strict gluten-free diet for their entire life.
What do I do if I think I have problems with gluten?
First, talk to your doctor. If you have relatives with any autoimmune diseases or with gluten sensitivity, be sure to mention it because that raises your risk of having celiac disease. Blood tests are an easy way to make an initial assessment, but you have to be eating gluten daily. You can also have a biopsy of the small intestines (endoscopy), genetic testing, or a diet trial. Make sure your doctor follows up on any other symptoms, and checks your nutrient status. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity.
No health insurance? Some hospitals offer free or low-cost screening dates once a year. Genetic testing is also available online, but the genes only mean that you have the potential to develop the disease. You can carry the genes without having or ever developing the disease.
Should I eat gluten free even though I don’t have celiac disease?
First, anyone with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity should absolutely always eat 100% gluten free. If you don’t have it or feel better when you’re not eating gluten, though, there’s not any reason to eat gluten-free. As I said above, while some people may feel better off gluten, most people have no problems with gluten. You can eat a healthy diet either way, and it is much easier to eat a normal diet.
I read that gluten-free food was unhealthy. Is that true?
Like most diets, there are healthy choices and unhealthy choices. Some gluten-free foods– like cookies– are definitely unhealthy. Refined grains, basically white bread and white rice, are also foods that should only be consumed occasionally. People following a gluten-free diet who eat a lot of refined foods may want to consider taking a multivitamin because most gluten-free refined foods aren’t fortified (wheat products are). However, I’d suggest a wiser strategy is eating fewer refined and processed foods in favor of a wide variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, eggs, and dairy/fish/meat if you consume them. Those foods can form the basis for a very healthy and nutritious diet, and you’ll find (most) recipes on my blog do focus on those healthful foods.
Got another question? Post it and I’ll answer.