The Truth about Gluten-Free Diets
Chances are you know someone who follows gluten-free diet (why else would supermarkets and restaurant chains point out the gluten-free foods?). Gluten-free diets are catching on at college campuses. Oprah Winfrey's "21-day cleanse" included gluten elimination. But should you be jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon? Let’s sort out the science from the hype.
Who needs a a gluten-free diet?
A gluten-free diet is used to treat celiac disease, a genetically determined immune system reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley (and sometimes in oats too). With celiac disease, gluten ingestion causes the intestines to become inflamed. Inflammation eventually damages the absorptive surface, leading to malnutrition and other medical problems. When people with celiac disease eliminate gluten, they feel better in a few days, although it takes 2 to 3 months or longer for their intestines to heal.
The classic symptoms of celiac disease are crampy abdominal pain with bloating, gas and diarrhea, but some patients experience anemia, joint pain, headaches, and skin rashes instead - or no obvious symptoms at all. Not long ago, celiac disease was thought to be rare (about 1 in 3,000 in North America), but new prevalence estimates are actually much higher and have been set closer to 1 in 133 (and 1 in 22 when a close relative has the disease.) No one knows for sure why celiac disease has become more common. The newer tests to find it are easier to use, but that doesn't seem to be the reason. Theories abound, and according to the New York Times, one theory favored by some scientists hypothesizes that humans are overdosing on gluten because wheat has become so common in the Western diet. Stay tuned....
What is a gluten-free diet?
Here's the real problem: the gluten-free diet is not easy to follow. Gluten is hidden in so many foods; for instance, gluten may be an ingredient in deli meats, soy sauce, vinegar, marinades, salad dressings, canned soup, thickeners, sour cream, ice cream, whiskey, beer, and many other foods. Forget about easily going out for pizza and even Communion wafers! And warn the hostess that you are the dinner guest from hell.
Gluten-free dieters must make a lifelong commitment to diligently read all food labels and ferret out sources of gluten-free food. To that end, many organizations have risen to provide reliable information. Among the best are celiac.com and zeer.com. Our own About.com has two guides to gluten: the Guide to Celiac Disease and the Guide to Gluten-Free Cooking.
Gluten and YOU
And so, while a gluten-free diet is critical for celiac disease, it is just not necessary for John and Jane Q. Public. When followed correctly, the gluten-free diet is inconvenient, expensive and presents nutritional challenges by limiting foods. And if you think you may have celiac disease, see a doctor for evaluation before starting the diet because the gluten-free diet can impact the results of the diagnostic tests. And so, if you need a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, then do your homework and follow it to the letter. And for everyone, celiac or not, be suspicious about the information passed off as science.
Have you thought about going gluten-free? Do you have celiac disease?