So What’s all the Fuss about Gluten?

Michael J. Racca, PT, MSPT

Michael J. Racca, PT, MSPT

So What’s all the Fuss about Gluten?

with Mike Racca, MSPT, CEAS

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helps it rise and keep shape, and gives a product a chewy texture. Unfortunately for people with a condition known as Celiac Disease, gluten can trigger an immune response from the body with mild symptoms ranging from headaches and fatigue, to more severe intestinal distress and damage. According to the National Institutes of Health, Celiac Disease affects 1 in 133 people. This is the population whose allergic reactions can be triggered from eating even a small amount of gluten and can be severe enough to be life-threatening. People with celiac disease simply cannot tolerate gluten.

Although celiac disease was initially diagnosed by a process of elimination, today it can be identified with a blood test. If you think you might have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it’s best to see a doctor before going gluten free. Once you avoided gluten for a while, it becomes more difficult to diagnose celiac disease accurately.

For those without celiac disease, the recent popularity of gluten free diets may have reached its tipping point after the book Wheat Belly was published in 2011and became a New York Times Bestseller. Gluten free diets have also been featured on multiple popular television segments. Although there is much controversy surrounding the claims of the benefits of a gluten free diet, there is also much discussion going on by people who simply feel better after going gluten free.

In 2011 a panel of celiac experts concluded that there is also a condition related to gluten other than celiac disease now being called “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity”. This has become the recommended term for conditions where symptoms different from celiac disease reactions result from ingestion of gluten. While celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population, experts estimate that up to 10 percent may have symptoms related to this poorly understood gluten sensitivity. Some sources indicate that experts now believe that celiac disease represents just one end of the spectrum of gluten intolerance that potentially includes millions of people with less severe reactions to gluten.

The 300,000+ people in this country with celiac disease must strictly observe a gluten-free diet, because a small amount of gluten can trigger debilitating gastrointestinal discomfort.However a growing number of people are trying gluten free diets based on claims that the genetic modification of wheat has changed the way our bodies can process it. Despite the controversy currently being researched and disputed in the literature over the benefits of a gluten free diet for those without celiac disease, a significant enough demand has developed for gluten free food and gluten free diets that supermarkets, restaurants and even food franchises are now offering gluten free options.

So why go “Gluten-Free”?

A variety of health benefits ranging from weight loss to reduced symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis to improved sleep have been discussed as reasons to go gluten free. As always, you should consult a physician with regard to any medical conditions that could be affected by a change in your diet. For the otherwise healthy individual not diagnosed with celiac disease, the best reason to try a gluten free diet may simply be to see how your body reacts and if you experience any positive results. Since gluten free diets tend to eliminate an abundance of processed foods, simply avoiding gluten can lead to eating more fresh and natural whole foods containing fewer ingredients and preservatives. Meats, fish, and poultry should always be eaten fresh, without the preservatives that can be a hidden source of gluten. To maintain the necessary amount of fiber in your diet which may typically be obtained from wheat based products, other sources of fiber such as brown rice, quinoa, fruits, vegetables, and beans, can be enjoyed without having to worry about whether or not they contain gluten. After eliminating gluten, assess what has changed for you. Did you lose weight or experience an increase in energy? Do you feel less sluggish after meals? Are you sleeping better? Have your allergies improved? These are just a few examples of what people are reporting.

How to avoid Gluten. . .

As the saying goes, this is easier said than done. Avoiding gluten may require giving up more than beer, bread and pizza. Gluten may also be present in less obvious products such as sausage, soy sauce, ketchup, and ice cream that use it as a stabilizing agent or binder. Because gluten can be hidden in many other products, including vitamin and mineral supplements, following a gluten free diet can be difficult.

To the best of my knowledge and research, the Food and Drug Administration has still not yet regulated the use of gluten free on a food label, but it does require manufacturers to declare if wheat is used as an ingredient in a product. Remember many additives, natural or artificial, can contain gluten and wheat free does not mean gluten free.

There is now an abundance of information available on gluten free diets, recipes and products, and even your favorite pizza place may surprise you and make a gluten free pie!

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