You see products on grocery store shelves, see ads online and hear about it all the time. The world is obsessed with gluten free. For some, it’s a fad diet that will go as fast as it came. But for many, such products are a godsend for a happier, healthier life, not to mention the ease they bring to food prep day in and day out. We’re referring to, of course, people who have an intolerance to gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, primarily wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-containing staples include pastas, cereals and — seriously? — beer, but it is also found in some vitamins, makeup and even medications. It’s important to note that gluten intolerance is far different than a wheat allergy, nor does it equate with celiac disease.
An allergy is an immune response in which your body overreacts to a substance. A reaction to a food allergy would produce the same symptoms as what you’d experience if you were severely allergic to pet dander or ragweed: hives, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or vomiting. However, exposure to a food allergen can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. Gluten intolerance and celiac disease are NOT allergic responses.
Intolerance or disease?
Simply put, gluten intolerance means your body lets you know in no uncertain terms how unhappy it is with you if you consume gluten. It may react in several ways, including abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, gas and bloating, and nausea and vomiting. Other non-gut symptoms include headaches, joint and muscle pain, fatigue, depression, brain fog, anxiety and a mild rash. Gluten intolerance is treated simply — yeah, like it’s so easy to not eat bread! — by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune reaction to gluten, where your body sends antibodies to attack the small intestine, as if invaded by a virus. Celiac has many of the same gut symptoms as gluten intolerance, but after time, the villi that line the intestine become damaged, leading to nonabsorption of critical nutrients. If left untreated, symptoms will move beyond the digestive system and can include severe anemia, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, muscle cramps, bone pain, impaired spleen function, infertility, depression, severe skin rash, mouth ulcers, neurological disorders, hepatitis and even cancer. A person with celiac disease has no other option but to avoid all gluten, even trace amounts (called “cross-contamination”), at all times.
The good news is that only people who have an abnormal gene — HLA-Dq2 or -DQ8 — can develop celiac disease, and out of the 30% of population with the gene, only 1% actually progress to disease level. A simple blood test can help determine the presence of celiac disease. Gluten intolerance, however, is best determined through an elimination diet, where gluten is removed for a period, then added back in, with the patient tracking any symptoms.
But I love pasta!
Managing a gluten-free lifestyle may seem difficult, but there are plenty of nongluten foods and gluten-free replacements to enjoy. Tasty alternatives to gluten-containing grains include uncontaminated oats, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and amaranth. Gluten-free flours line the shelves of many groceries and usually contain a mix of rice, potato, tapioca or other safe ingredients. Some of these can even be substituted cup-for-cup in your favorite recipes.
So, what can I eat?
Plenty. As mentioned, the stores abound with gluten-free everything. It’ll cost a bit more, but your health is worth it. Establish a diet rich in fiber and low in fat. And don’t assume gluten-free means no fun. There are plenty of foods naturally gluten-free, like tacos and nachos (corn tortillas only), favorite fries like those found at Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s and Burger King, and chocolate! Hershey’s, Dove, Reese’s Cups, Almond Joy and Snickers all are gluten-free! Score! The important thing is to read those labels and do some research. Your dietician can give you gobs of tips, too.
Owww, I messed up
You can be as diligent as possible and still accidently ingest gluten. What can you do to stop the ick if you’ve accidentally been glutened? GoodForYouGlutenFree.com has some suggestions:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Water will flush it out better than anything. Add ginger and lemon to boot.
- Take an emergency digestive enzyme. But ONLY for emergency help, as your body can become dependent on them.
- Rest. A lot. Your body will need time to heal.
- Utilize the BRAT diet. Clean and easy-to-digest foods to calm your gut.
- Double up on probiotics.
- Double down on diligence. Invest in a portable gluten-detecting device (Allis Sensor or Nima Sensor).
You’ll also want to be diligent in regular lab testing for anemia, high cholesterol and vitamin and nutritional deficiencies.
Whether you are just beginning your gluten-free journey or you were diagnosed with celiac disease years ago, we hope you embrace this part of your health journey and the potential it has for healing your body. Maintaining a gluten-free diet is the best and only way to manage gluten intolerance. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed here, speak to your primary care physician to see if a blood test or elimination diet could be right for you.