Gluten: What, Why, and
How? By Omar Shamout
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If you didn't know any better, you might be
forgiven for thinking a "gluten" was the muscle you flex while doing squats and
lunges in the gym. In fact, gluten is a grain protein found in wheat, rye,
oats, and barley that acts as a sort of glue holding the flour together, and
providing structure. Sounds like a good thing, yet a quick visit to the diet
book section of Amazon.com reveals so many "gluten-free" guides that you'd
think it was as evil as trans fat or MSG. So what's the big deal over such a
tiny little protein that performs such a noble function? Let's break down the
substance into an easily digestible diet of what, why, and how.
What's the problem with gluten?
Unfortunately, about 1 percent of the
world's population (roughly 1 out of every 133 people) suffers from a genetic
gluten intolerance known as celiac disease, making it the world's most
prevalent autoimmune disorder. Those affected with the condition suffer severe
abdominal pain and discomfort when tiny, nutrient-absorbing projectiles in the
small intestine known as villi come into contact with gluten, leaving
them damaged and unable to function properly. Often, this intolerance leads to
prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. Yikes! However, many carriers show no symptoms
of the disease at all, and the only way to be diagnosed properly is through
blood tests and an intestinal biopsy. Celiac disease should not be confused
with a wheat allergy, where symptoms such as hives and itchiness recede once
the allergen leaves the system.1
How do I cure celiac disease?
The only known cure for celiac disease is a
100 percent gluten-free diet. Naturally, this means getting rid of many of our
favorite starchy foods. To lessen the blow, celiac sufferers are entitled to a
tax deduction on the extra cost incurred when buying gluten-free foods. In this
economy, that could really come in handy!2
What are the other medical benefits of a
In recent years, people without an
intolerance have begun to take up a gluten-free lifestyle in an effort to lose
weight. Others have put their faith in what is currently anecdotal evidence
claiming that the omission of gluten improves conditions including but not
limited to joint pain, osteoporosis, diabetes types 1 and 2, and neurological
disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, and autism. However,
these cases are awaiting detailed medical studies, so until those take place,
there is no conclusive evidence to support the gluten connection to these
Why are people without diagnosed medical
problems going gluten free?
A large number of people have chosen to go
gluten free without a medical reason, and swear by the benefits they experience
on a daily basis, including increased energy and brain function, and fewer
aches and pains. Whatever your motivation, it is crucial to maintain a balanced
and well-rounded diet to avoid eliminating essential vitamins from your
nutritional intake. For instance, it may be tempting to stop eating bread
altogether, but starch-rich foods contain vital nutrients like B vitamins and
fiber,4 which prevent the onset of other health problems such as
anemia, nerve damage,5 high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and
How do I go about it?
should never be done on a whim, because you could be doing yourself more harm
than good without even knowing it. If you want to substitute rice, corn, or
potato-based products in favor of wheat and oats, just be sure to compensate
your vitamin intake in other ways, such as supplements. For those serious about
making the commitment to this lifestyle change, a comprehensive list of safe,
questionable, and forbidden foods can be found in the book Gluten-Free for
a Healthy Life by noted celiac dietician Kimberly A. Tessmer, RD, LD.
Making the switch to gluten-free is easier
than ever to do. Supply seems to have caught up with the increased public
demand for gluten-free, well, everything. Food and beverage companies are now
producing a wide array of sans-gluten products, including pizza, ice
cream, and yes, even beer!
What's the bottom line?
While the jury may still be out on the
long-term effects of a gluten-free diet for non-celiacs, it is quite possible
to live and thrive without gluten as long as you consult a doctor or dietician
first and plan out a well-balanced diet that doesn't ignore any of the
essential food groups, including carbohydrates. If you think you might have
celiac disease, do not self-diagnose, because your symptoms might be the result
of a different illness altogether. As with anything in life, don't start
because it's trendy, but rather because you've tried it out safely, and are
satisfied with the results.
- 1 Susic, Ivana. "Gluten
Free a Necessity, not Diet Choice." The Columbia Chronicle. March 2010.
- 2 Adams, Scott. "Tax
Deduction for Gluten-Free Foods as a Medical Expense for Diagnosed Celiacs
Only." www.celiac.com. July 1996.
- 3 Newell, Elena. "Health
Benefits of Gluten Free Diets." Associated Content. December 2008.
- 4 Mirn, Rachel. "Living
the 'Gluten Free Diet.'" Associated Content. March 2007.
- 5 Johnson, Larry E., MD,
PhD. "Vitamin B-12." Merck Manual. August 2007.