Going gluten free is the dietary trend of the moment. From supermarkets to restaurants, gluten-free fare is now readily available, but is it the right choice for you and your family?
What is gluten?
Gluten is the name of proteins found in grains, most often wheat, but also present in others, such as rye, barley and triticale. Gluten consists of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Both act as glue-like substances and help food maintain shape and texture.
If you are looking for gluten, you expect it in foods made from wheat and grains, but you may be surprised to discover gluten in the ingredient lists of many packaged foods that are not wheat or grain based. Gluten is often added as a “bulking” agent to foods such as dressings, sauces and even candy.
What is a gluten allergy or intolerance?
Of the two proteins in gluten, gliadin causes individuals to react negatively and is associated with gluten allergy or intolerance.
Celiac, an autoimmune disease, is a gluten allergy in which the small intestine cannot digest the proteins, resulting in serious health complications. While the disease is becoming more prevalent, only 1 to 2 percent of the population is actually Celiac positive.
Estimates for gluten intolerance or sensitivity are much higher. Data ranges from as few as 15 percent of the population to as many as 50 percent. While non-celiac sensitivity does not result in the attack of the body’s own tissues, the symptoms can be similar.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:
- Digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea and constipation.
- Fatigue, irritability, brain fog
- Depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD
- Autoimmune disorders
- Neurological symptoms such as dizziness
- Hormone imbalances
- Weight gain
- Joint inflammation
- Skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis or keratosis pilaris
In addition to causing symptoms, the New England Journal of Medicine has linked gluten intolerance to 55 diseases, including: irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, auto immune disorders, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, epilepsy, neuropathy, migraines, ADD, ADHD and autism.
Why is gluten sensitivity on the rise?
There are several theories behind why many more people are gluten sensitive today than in decades past.
First, gluten intake is higher than it was 50-plus years ago. The typical American diet is rich in carbohydrates, and many are wheat-based. Most of our snacks, including crackers, pastas, pizza, breads, cakes and cookies, are made with wheat flours. Additionally, food manufacturers now add gluten to many packaged, processed foods to improve texture, increasing our exposure to gluten as compared to previous generations.
Second, wheat produced in the U.S. may contain more gliadin as compared to wheat in other countries, and may explain why individuals who are gluten intolerant can often tolerate wheat outside the U.S. (It is important to note that those with Celiac should avoid wheat/gluten entirely regardless of country of origin. The inclusion of gluten in the diet regardless of the source can cause severe health complications.)
Lastly, recent studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine show that early introduction of gluten in pediatric patients can increase their risk of gluten sensitivity later in life. Similar to adults, children are exposed to high amounts of gluten and this exposure can lead to an increased prevalence of sensitivity.
How to go gluten free?
If you suspect gluten intolerance in you or a family member, try an elimination diet (going completely gluten free) for four to six weeks and see if your symptoms improve. If you feel better, you may be gluten sensitive, and removing it can help to heal your gastrointestinal tract and improve your overall health.
The information provided is for education only and is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor should it be used as a replacement for seeking medical treatment.
Jaime Coffey Martinez, MS RD is a registered clinical and integrative dietitian who practices in the D.C. area and owns Nutrition CPR, LLC (http://www.nutritioncpr.com), a nutrition consulting company providing both one-to-one nutrition coaching and corporate nutrition and wellness programs. Jaime coaches her clients on the importance of choosing real, nutrient-dense foods that will nourish the body, optimize health and help clients achieve their personal goals.