If you’ve been looking at menus or walking through the grocery store, you’ve likely noticed more and more items labelled “gluten-free”. Why? Who is avoiding gluten and why are they doing it? Why was there a three-fold increase in gluten-free diets when there has been no increase in the medical diagnosis of related diseases?
In honor of National Celiac Awareness Day, we’re talking about gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains- wheat, rye and barley- and helps give an elasticity to these flours in cooking and baking. These grains are found in breads, pastas, soups, cereals and other baked goods. People can be affected by gluten in a few ways.
First, some people have an immediate allergic reaction to wheat and/or another grain. This is a more obvious reaction and easier to diagnose by blood tests looking for antibodies and skin testing looking for skin reactions. These must be treated by avoidance of the grain. There are no medications or allergy shots for food allergies- yet.
Second, people can be affected by the gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley. This can be found in a serious autoimmune form known as Celiac disease or in a milder form called gluten sensitivity. Certain individuals, about 1 in 100 people, have Celiac, a genetic condition where the body attacks the small intestine when gluten is ingested. This can cause lifelong effects and increases one’s chances of having other autoimmune diseases. The only treatment is avoidance of gluten. Blood tests can be performed to help diagnose this disease. Gluten sensitivity is something we don’t yet have conclusive testing for, but studies have shown that people without Celiac can still have damage to their small intestines if they are sensitive to gluten. Therefore, these individuals should still avoid gluten.
Are you avoiding gluten, or limiting your intake? Is it for health or weight loss? Did you have fatigue, digestive or other symptoms that have improved since you went off gluten? Or are you being encouraged by a friend or family member to eliminate it for a month? If you have a family member with confirmed celiac, or if you have an autoimmune disease you should get tested for celiac before you stop eating it. The blood tests are accurate only when you are actively eating (or drinking) gluten.
Going gluten-free is much easier now than it was 16 years ago when a member of my family was diagnosed with a wheat allergy. We are happy to discuss these issues with you, do any appropriate testing, and manage any diseases that are found.