Gluten or gluten free? That is the question

Today, gluten-free products and diets are all the rage. In fact, in my research on the subject I found as many as 1.6 million Americans avoid gluten, even though they haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Although there is no harm in eliminating gluten from your diet, doctors say there is no reason to avoid it—unless you’re one of the two million people who cannot tolerate the proteins.

Gluten is bad for some people, but certainly not all, so unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity; gluten-free products aren’t necessarily going to give you a health benefit.

What Exactly Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease was once considered a rare childhood disorder and was frequently misdiagnosed and just as frequently overlooked completely. Today, you will find doctors who are more aware of the oftentimes-vague symptoms that can signal celiac disease, and diagnose it frequently in children as well as adults.
Celiac disease is now estimated to be four times more common than it was 50 years ago and more advanced diagnostic tests may be the reason it seems to be on the rise. But researchers also believe that the way wheat is now grown, the use of processed foods, and the use of gluten in medications and vitamins, toothpaste, and lip balms, are all responsible for the increase in cases being diagnosed.

The main culprit in celiac disease is gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley-based products. Gluten triggers a response that makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. In a healthy body, the small intestine aids in the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. The gluten-triggered response damages the lining of the intestine and inflames the intestinal wall that causes the nutrients not to be absorbed properly. As a result many celiac sufferers become malnourished.

Do you have Celiac Disease, gluten sensitivity, or perhaps just a wheat allergy?

About 6 percent of the population may have non celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a condition that is less severe than celiac disease (one for which there appears to be no genetic basis and no tests exist to confirm its diagnosis). Symptoms include abdominal pain and headaches. Gluten-free diets may offer relief to sufferers of NCGS.
Wheat allergy—often confused with celiac disease—is something very different in that it is an immune-system response to gluten as opposed to a digestive system response. Wheat allergy is most common in children and can be outgrown (unlike celiac disease). Symptoms mimic those of other common childhood food allergies: itching, swelling, runny nose, watery eyes, upset stomach, and even difficulty breathing. As with all food allergies, the best treatment is to avoid the offensive food all together.

Why Diagnosis Is Important

Celiac disease can cause a host of physical problems ranging from irritability, vomiting, and delayed puberty in kids to joint pain, depression, and anxiety in adults. In some people, the disease lies dormant until an event such as surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress triggering a symptomatic attack. Getting a definitive diagnosis is important, because this is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure.

Undiagnosed celiac disease can lead to serious health conditions including growth problems in kids, osteoporosis, infertility, seizures, and, in rare cases, various forms of cancer. If symptoms or a patient’s family history lead a physician to suspect celiac disease, blood tests are used to screen for antibodies, which will confirm the disease. A biopsy of the small intestine confirms the antibody tests.

The Gluten-Free Diet

The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. Learning to adopt one can be challenging at the start, but will help these patients overcome their physical challenges and educate them as to what they can and can no longer eat. A gluten-free diet isn’t one you can just try, you must be intentional about avoiding gluten before you grocery shop or eat out.

A true gluten-free diet is important for people with celiac disease and requires education. There’s more to it than just looking at labels to see if something contains gluten. Gluten proteins can be found in other additives as well. Fortunately, food manufacturers are providing gluten-free products by the shelf load that can be found just about anywhere. Many restaurants are also beginning to annotate their menus so you can find their gluten, vegan or vegetarian options at a glance. (While this is extremely helpful, you should be aware that food prepared in environments where gluten is present can become contaminated simply by the shared space. It’s good to ask how and where the food is prepared in the kitchen.)

For those who need gluten free diets, stay tuned to our blog. In the next few articles I will give you some great recipes to try out.

Daniel Burton DDS