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Gluten: Good or Bad?

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 5/7/2015

You have probably heard and seen a lot about "going gluten free." Perhaps you have wondered whether it would be healthier for you to give up gluten. Unless you have a disease or intolerance, there's no need to make the change. Learn causes, effects and more about gluten and health issues.

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    Is Gluten Bad for You? What if you couldn’t have cake for your birthday? What if your mother’s famous spaghetti with meat sauce was off-limits for Sunday dinner? What if those doughnuts your father picked up at the grocery store were forbidden? No cookies, pretzels or fried chicken? What if these types of food made you sick? What if you had celiac disease?

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    Celiac Disease

    Eating is not supposed to hurt, but for some people, it does when they eat certain foods.

    People who have celiac disease must eat a limited diet—a diet without gluten. Gluten is a composite of protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley. Those grains make flour, a staple for many baked goods.

    Celiac disease is also called sprue, celiac sprue, non-tropical sprue, gluten-sensitivity enteropathy, Gee-Herter disease and coeliac disease (a European spelling).

    With this disease, the body doesn’t react to gluten the way it should. If wheat is making you sick, terrible internal battles are going on in your gut, your intestinal tract and more, as a consequence of gluten.

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    Gluten Intolerance

    When people with celiac eat wheat, the hair like structures—called villi—on the lining of their small intestines malfunction. The job of the villi is to increase the surface area of the small intestine so it can absorb more nutrients. Instead, the body views the gluten as toxic and attacks the villi in defense. The villi get whacked so they are shortened or blunted and can get, on the extreme, flat. Flat villi cannot absorb anything, so important nutrients, vitamins and other vital things for good health suffer malabsorption. Malabsorption means your body is not getting the protein, sugars and nutrients it needs to rebuild and keep things running.

    Symptoms

    There are head-to-toe problems associated with gluten intolerance. Here are some typical symptoms:

    • Fatigue
    • Gastrointestinal distress (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, acid reflux, vomiting)
    • Depression
    • Inability to focus, concentrate
    • Joint, bone of muscle pain
    • Weight gain or loss
    • Infertility
    • Headaches including migraines
    • Loss of dental enamel
    • Vitamin K deficiency
    • Sores inside the mouth

    Left untreated, it can create much more serious complications and other diseases down the road: from malnutrition, delayed growth, to osteoporosis and worse.

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    Causes

    It’s hard to point the finger at what causes celiac disease or even gluten intolerance. Many doctors don’t even know how to diagnose it. It is genetic, but there is still a lot to learn about what causes or triggers it.

    Here is what professionals do know:

    • Celiac disease means you carry the gene for it
    • People who have other autoimmune disorders are likely candidates: those with diabetes, thyroid disease, Down syndrome, ulcerative colitis and more.
    • Celiac disease can happen at any age. In fact, some people may have it but don’t show symptoms for decades.
    • Doctors generally diagnose celiac using one of three methods: a blood test, small tissue biopsy and genetic testing.
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    Going Gluten-Free

    Wheat is a big part of the food pyramid and we are always hearing the virtues of eating the good fiber and nutrients that are found in whole grains. The agriculture for grain production is only about 10,000 years old. Human bodies need time to adapt and evolve and, for some, that’s not going to happen.

    The poor responses to wheat, rye and barley can run from mild allergies, to sensitivity, to complete intolerance and celiac disease. What this means is that the body’s immune system is overreacting to a food, treating it as a foreign invader. Behavior can even be affected as a result, in that a person experiences fatigue or “fuzzy brain,”an inability to concentrate that can be very real.

    Our government and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) used to publish a “food pyramid” (based upon a Swedish model) that was an illustration as to how people should eat: it was heavy into whole grains suggesting that people eat 6 to 11 servings; and very light on vegetable and fruit servings—originally, a paltry 2-3 servings!

    What’s there to eat without gluten? Here is a partial list of gluten-free foods:

    • Grains including quinoa, buckwheat, corn and millet
    • Fruits
    • Vegetables
    • Meat (untreated, unsliced)
    • Chicken
    • Fish
    • Nuts
    • Seeds
    • Beans, legumes and tofu
    • Rice
    • Eggs
    • Extracts and spices (all pure, no additives for pourability)
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    It’s the Little Things

    People intolerant to gluten need to be aware of food additives and contamination possibilities because of food processing. Starches or products made to bind foods may contain wheat. Croutons in salads, instant coffee and coffee flavorings, cereals and fried foods might all be contaminated with gluten. Gravies, marinades, salad dressing and anything with hydrolyzed vegetable protein may have gluten.

    There is even gluten in certain beauty products, prescription drugs, even stamps and envelope adhesives!

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    Gluten Detective

    Today’s processed foods have deceptive labels, include a litany of unrecognizable terms, additives, starches, artificial colorings and emulsifiers. The buyer must become an expert at reading labels, a slow-and-careful shopper and someone who has a phone handy to call manufacturers who can explain their “hidden” ingredients.

    Interesting tips and tidbits:

    • “Gluten” also includes barley and ryes, so don’t confuse the term “wheat-free” with “gluten-free.”
    • Research restaurants before dining out. Even those who offer naturally gluten free items may not have experience in or knowledge about gluten intolerance. Cross-contamination could be an issue.
    • Thoroughly clean all cooking surfaces. Even a tiny crumb of gluten-filled food can make you sick.
    • Visit some celiac forums for guidance and to see what other consumers are doing to stay G-free.
    • Check manufacturers’ websites before you shop to see if they contain gluten and find alternatives if they do.
    • Gluten-free bread made from wheat? Scientists have come up with a hydrolyzed wheat flour that contains 12 parts per million of gluten, a level the FDA considers safe for those with celiac disease. It may one day be a reality.

References

  • Celiac.com: Celiac Disease
  • Korn, Danna. Living Gluten-Free for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006. Book.
  • Hasselbeck, Elizabeth. The G Free Diet: A Gluten-free Survival Guide. New York: Center Street Hachette Group, 2009. Book.
  • Prevention. “Eat Clean Coming Soon: Gluten-Free Wheat?” April, 2015, pg. 57.