Many of you have heard the term “gluten free,” some of you may know someone who is on the diet, and a few of you may be gluten-free yourselves. I hadn’t heard of it until I started working at a natural foods store a couple of years back. Over time, I learned more about the topic and am currently in my third month of a gluten-free diet. I’ll discuss a little bit about my experience and some of the things I’ve learned. I certainly don’t know much beyond my own experience, but I have been able to piece together some interesting facts, which I’ll share with you.
People who are wheat-sensitive fall into two basic categories: those with Celiac disease and those with gluten intolerance. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two because Celiac is hard to test for, and symptoms are often similar. The main difference is that someone with Celiac will never be able to digest gluten; whereas those with gluten allergies may experience changes in how their body reacts over time.
Simply put, Celiac is an autoimmune disease related to the intestinal tract. People with Celiac have a reaction to gluten that causes damage to the intestinal villi, which are small, finger-like fibers on the intestinal walls that help absorb nutrients. This can lead to mal-absorption, malnutrition, other digestive issues, and a slew of other health problems.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website, www.celiaccentral.org, Celiac symptoms include the following: gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, tingling/numbness, mouth sores, joint pain, poor weight gain, headaches, infertility, depression, irritability, and discolored teeth. I know what you’re thinking–we have probably all experienced at least some of the culprits on this list. It’s a tricky thing, because Celiac is very difficult to test for and some people with the disease may not have any symptoms at all. The website states that 2.8 million people have Celiac; and, further, that 95% of them are undiagnosed.
My goal is by no means to elicit fear about another thing that we can’t control; rather the opposite: to help inspire folks to make new connections about their health. I decided to try eliminating gluten from my diet mainly because I had been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome as a teenager, and although eating is one of my very favorite pastimes, have extremely finicky digestion. I found myself avoiding too much dairy, too much meat, too much rich food, and certain combinations because I just didn’t know what was causing me pain. It was a rocky start when I first cut out gluten because a huge portion of my diet was gluten-based.
Gluten is a protein source found in wheat, barley and rye. There are many other grains that do not contain gluten and are safe for the gluten-free diet, including rice, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. Flour made from tapioca, corn, almonds, beans, potato and rice are safe. Many oats have been found to contain gluten due to cross-contamination in processing, but oats produced in a certified gluten-free facility are safe.
The most difficult thing about eliminating gluten from my own diet, beyond having to change the way I ate was, and still is, understanding what foods actually contain gluten. It’s not as simple as one might think, because gluten is used in many foods. The obvious things to avoid are bread, crackers, pasta–the usual carbs. However, other foods on the list include soy sauce (unless it’s gluten-free tamari, it has wheat in it), beer, anything with flour, modified food starch, maltodextrine, dextrose and malt flavoring. Natural flavoring often contains wheat derivatives; sausage often contains gluten as a filler, and many prescriptions and over-the-counter medications contain gluten as a binding agent.
One thing that has made it easier for me is that I was already in the habit of avoiding processed or packaged foods whenever possible. Nowadays I stick with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic meat, whole, gluten-free grains, and some cheese. I love cultured dairy such as yogurt and cultured cottage cheese. My stomach problems have all but disappeared–my pain level has been reduced by over 90%-and this change became noticeable for me within a couple weeks of cutting out gluten. Now I eat pretty much whatever I want (within what I consider the parameters of a healthy diet) as long as I avoid the gluten. There are many gluten-free brands of bread and pasta out there, none of which are quite the same, but some of which are pretty good (my favorite bread is Rudi’s Multigrain). When I eat out, I always ask before I order, just to be safe. The fact that I am no longer wondering what I should and shouldn’t eat and guessing as to what makes my stomach hurt gives me peace of mind.
I have no idea if I actually have Celiac or am just gluten intolerant, for me this is secondary to the ability to actually feel good. There are many folks out there with food allergies, gluten or otherwise, who are suffering secondary side effects and don’t know it. If you feel that you may be gluten intolerant or have some kind of food allergy, your doctor may be able to help, and working with a health care professional can make the process less overwhelming.
For more information and resources, check out these pages: The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness: www.Celiaccentral.org, Celiac Disease Foundation, www.celiac.org and the American Celiac Disease Alliance, www.americanceliac.org.