Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects a small percentage of people when they consume gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. For those suffering from celiac disease, gluten consumption can be devastating to the digestive tract. This is because gluten causes an immune response that actually damages and destroys the villi of the small intestine. Since most of our nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, untreated celiac disease can lead to malnutrition and other health issues. If you suspect you have celiac disease, you should see your doctor immediately.
Gluten intolerance (or non-celiac gluten sensitivity) is a bit more mysterious. It can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be broad and there is no specific test that shows a sensitivity exists. Symptoms typically include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or other gastrointestinal discomfort following the consumption of gluten. It can also cause inflammation in the joints and other areas of the body, and symptoms can present themselves outside of the digestive tract. Although a larger percentage of people have a gluten sensitivity than celiac disease, some studies have found that many of those consuming a gluten-free diet can actually tolerate the protein without incident. Further research is definitely necessary, but these days many people simply believe they feel better after eliminating gluten containing foods from their lives.
Whether you are following a gluten-free diet because you have celiac disease, or simply because you have made a personal decision to do so, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- The typical western diet includes large amounts of wheat. Everything from the cereal we consume in the morning, to the sandwich we eat at lunch, and the pasta we devour at dinner, is typically made with wheat flour. Wheat, when consumed in whole grain form, provides an abundance of nutrients such as B vitamins, folate, and iron. Eliminating wheat from the diet can easily result in deficiencies if care is not taken to replace wheat with a nutritionally dense, gluten-free option. Many gluten-free foods are made with simple, processed grains and are not actually a sufficient replacement. So, if you are ditching the wheat, be sure to compensate elsewhere.
- Sometimes gluten is tucked away in places you would least expect it. The food industry uses gluten containing foods in a variety of ways. They are added to spices, used in soups and sauces as thickeners, and hidden away in marinades. Some prepackaged meats contain gluten, as do a variety of potato chips. Contamination can also be a factor. Oats, for example, do not contain gluten by nature, but oat fields are often grown relatively close to wheat, rye, or barley fields and therefore may be contaminated. When avoiding gluten it is important to read labels, check allergen menus, and be aware of high risk foods. Although this may seem overwhelming at first, food labeling laws, and the trendy nature of gluten-free diets, have made the process significantly easier in recent years.
- There are a lot of substitutions to choose from. The gluten-free industry has come a long way in the past decade. Gluten-free foods can be found everywhere from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart. This convenience has made it possible for people following a gluten-free diet to finally treat themselves to the things they have been missing. But not all gluten-free foods are created equal. As mentioned earlier, many are made with simple, processed grains that are sorely lacking in nutrients. Again, it is important to check the labels of the products you are buying. Read the ingredients and scope out the nutrition facts. For example, there are a variety of gluten-free pastas on the market. Some are made with corn, or rice flour, while others are made with lentils, or black beans (for The Leafy Kiwi’s favorite gluten-free pasta be sure to visit our Gear Check section). A brown rice pasta might contain one or two grams of fiber and a few grams of protein, while a lentil pasta often contains around 15 grams of protein and 3 to 5 grams of fiber. Of course, it is important to note that switching to a gluten-free diet does not necessarily mean you should consume a variety of processed, gluten free substitutions. Whole, natural foods are always best and should make up the bulk of any diet or lifestyle.
Gluten-free living is most definitely not for everyone and for many it is an unnecessary lifestyle change to make, but if you have recently been diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, or you simply feel at your best when avoiding gluten containing foods, then a gluten-free lifestyle might be for you. Be sure to do your research and choose quality, nutrient dense substitutions. Focus on consuming whole, natural foods in your diet, and let the labels be your guide as you navigate through the large variety of gluten-free products on the market. Beware of gluten hiding in unexpected places and of course, always talk to your doctor before making this, or other drastic changes to your lifestyle. Best of luck and happy health!