Footloose and Gluten-Free!

They’re everywhere… on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves:   Gluten-free food products. Just what is gluten – and why has it suddenly become such a prominent part of our national psyche?  You may know someone who suffers from gluten intolerance or from Celiac Disease; and since May is Celiac Disease Awareness month, I’d like to shed some light on the topic.

So let’s start with answering the question: what is gluten?

Gluten is a protein composite that may appear in foods processed from wheat.  You can think of gluten is the “glue” that binds dough together and enables its chewy texture.  While it’s true that gluten is usually found in wheat, barley and rye, not all grains include gluten. Oats, buckwheat and soybeans are gluten free, for example.

In short, gluten is what makes your favorite pizza dough so deliciously chewy.  The person who suffers from gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease often has to decline pizza, cookies and bread.  No wonder so many companies are offering substitutes!

Intolerance to gluten must be diagnosed into 3 separate conditions: Celiac Disease, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) and Wheat Allergy.

 

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that impacts the small intestines, and can eventually lead to the inability to absorb essential nutrients.  It is often difficult to diagnose due to a broad range of symptoms which can vary in children verses adults.  A blood test will confirm the presence of Celiac Disease for someone suffering from intestinal discomfort for which no other diagnosis can be established.

Gluten intolerance develops slowly and is sometimes misdiagnosed as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or lactose or yeast intolerance.  Common symptoms include stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, numbness, and depression, but more than 100 associated symptoms have been identified.

A wheat allergy produces the typical allergic histamine response, similar to that associated with allergies to pollen (hay fever) and pets, such as hives, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, stomach discomfort and even pain.  A person with a wheat allergy does not necessarily suffer from gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease.

Many people who suspect they have gluten intolerance must eliminate gluten from their diets to determine if it is indeed the true culprit of their discomfort.  Today, broad resources are available for families coping with Celiac Disease and NCGS.  Check out glutenfreely.com for the most comprehensive, user-friendly site I’ve seen on this topic, created in partnership with The Center for Celiac Research and other prominent medical institutions.

Of course, if you suspect a gluten intolerance or other food allergy, contact your primary care provider or nurse practitioner for guidance and resources.  Because we all want to enjoy the blessings of delicious food!