The gluten-free diet is a Hollywood favorite these days, and you often hear about it in the media. But is this diet right for YOU?
You may be asking yourself “What is gluten?” or “Why would I need to go gluten-free?”
Gluten is a protein found in several types of grains, including wheat, rye and barley. It is also found in bread, pasta, cereals and baked goods. When flour is mixed with water, the gluten proteins form a glue-like consistency that makes dough become elastic and provides a pleasant texture in foods that we eat. For a vast majority of people, avoiding gluten is unnecessary. However, gluten can cause health problems in some individuals, and awareness of the negative health effects of gluten has increased in the past few years. A 2015 Gallup poll found that about one in five Americans include gluten-free foods in their diet.
There are a few health conditions that cause these negative health effects. Celiac disease (CD), which is an autoimmune disease, is one of these conditions. To develop CD a person must inherit the genetic predisposition (have a family history of the disease) and be consuming gluten. When gluten is ingested by persons with CD, it causes their immune system to attack both the gluten as well as their intestines. The most common symptoms of CD are digestive discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headache, fatigue, depression and weight loss.
There are individuals that don’t have CD but have these same problems when ingesting gluten. These individuals are said to have a condition called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. This sensitivity presents with the same signs and symptoms of CD but without the immune system damage to the intestines.
If you’re having similar symptoms after ingesting foods containing gluten, you may want to speak with your doctor. In order for gluten sensitivity/intolerance to be diagnosed, it is first necessary to rule out CD or other possible causes. You can be tested for CD through blood tests and a biopsy from the small intestine.
If you believe you have gluten intolerance, you can try eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 30 days. Please note that gluten can take months to clear from your system, so the longer you can eliminate it before reintroducing it, the better. If you feel significantly better off of gluten or feel worse when you reintroduce it, then gluten is likely the culprit. Please note that for this testing method to be accurate, you must eliminate 100% of gluten from your diet. This maybe more challenging than you think, as gluten, especially wheat, is added to a surprising number of foods. Generally speaking, you should avoid processed foods, cereals and grains that contain gluten. Also it is best to only consume grains with a gluten-free label.
On the brighter side, there are a few grains and seeds that are naturally gluten-free like corn, rice, flax and oats. There are also plenty of healthy whole foods that are naturally gluten-free, including protein such as meat and seafood, eggs, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. Most beverages are also gluten-free, except beer unless it’s labeled as such.
In short, for the majority of Americans, avoiding gluten is unnecessary. However, for people with certain health conditions such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance, removing gluten from their diet can make a huge difference in their health, well-being and quality of life.
Marie Vazquez Morgan, PT PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Rehab Sciences at LSU Health Shreveport’s School of Allied Health Professions. Marie’s previous contributions to Lola Magazine include the article “Cheers, Mom: Here’s to Your Health” on wine in the May-June issue.