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Going Gluten Free: What You Should Know

Going Gluten Free: What You Should Know
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Like ever-shifting trends in fashion and popular music, the American public is no stranger to new fad diets. Over the past several decades, substances such as fat, red meat and carbohydrates have been forbidden or strictly limited by certain diets, while being embraced by others. It can be quite a challenge to keep track of all of these diet fads, and even more of a struggle to recall what each diet deems permissible. In the last several years, you’ve probably heard a good deal about “gluten-free” diets and their impact on the digestive system. Like other health-related decisions, it is highly advisable to research gluten before deciding whether to jettison it from your diet.

A Building Block of Bread (And Many More Foods)

The substance known as gluten develops naturally when flour absorbs water and is then kneaded or mixed. Gluten is an ingredient in all wheat products, and is also present in items made with rye and barley, albeit to a much lesser degree. Gluten is classified as a protein composite, meaning that if forms from the fusion of other types of protein. Specifically, gluten’s chemical makeup consists of two proteins known as gliadin and glutenin.

It’s not hard to at all pick up a product with gluten at the grocery store. In fact, you’ve probably ingested some gluten today before reading this article. The following foods are prohibited in a gluten-free diet unless they are specifically labeled as containing no gluten (or containing substitutes like corn, soy or rice):

 

  • Beer
  • Matzo
  • Breads
  • Pastas
  • Cakes and Pies
  • Processed Luncheon Meats
  • Candies
  • Salad Dressings
  • Cereals
  • Sauces, including soy sauce
  • Cookies and crackers
  • Seasoned rice mixes
  • Croutons
  • Seasoned snack foods, such as potato and tortilla chips
  • French Fries
  • Self-basting poultry
  • Gravies
  • Soups/soup bases
  • Imitation Meat or Seafood
  • Vegetables in sauce

(Source: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/gluten-free-diet/art-20048530)

There are also several ingredients derived from wheat that are also off limits; this list includes bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina and spelt.

The Downside of Gluten

Gluten plays an essential role in allowing baked goods to form properly. Without the use of gluten, many types of breads, bagels, rolls, pastries and similar foods wouldn’t be able to rise while baking, and could not morph into their familiar shapes. Even snack foods like crackers rely on gluten to attain their desired appearance. In addition, your favorite offerings at the local bakery owe their doughy texture to gluten.

Unfortunately, all those traits that make gluten such a useful ingredient can come at a price, since some adults and children experience gluten-related digestive problems. The reasons behind these adverse reactions, along with their accompanying symptoms, can depend on the patient’s personal medical history and health.

People with celiac disease are usually the most vulnerable group to gluten. In fact, celiac patients are unable to consume gluten in any amount whatsoever. A genetic condition, celiac disease causes the body’s immune system to grossly overreact to the presence of gluten. With the malfunctioning immune system viewing gluten as a hostile invader, the body quickly turns on its own small intestine, attacking the tissues of this crucial organ. In turn, this causes celiac sufferers to experience everything from digestive problems to muscle pains to seizures. Though there is no cure for this disease, celiac patients can lead relatively normal lives provided they steer clear of gluten.

Gluten Sensitivity

As damaging as celiac disease is the body, it is not especially common, affecting only 1 in 133 Americans. However, this shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean that only 1 in 133 Americans respond poorly to gluten. Aside from those with celiac disease, studies have found that a sizable number of people seem to be unable to process gluten without ill effect.

Some researchers theorize that these individuals may have having non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Supporters of this theory contend that NCGS is virtually indistinguishable from celiac disease, as both conditions trigger digestive problems, rashes, mental fogginess and numbness in the hands and feet. There is a lot of debate surrounding NCGS, however, as it has only recently emerged as possible type of medical condition. As a result, research regarding NCGS is in short supply, and some doctors do not accept it as a legitimate ailment.

Despite these obstacles, some people are in fact diagnosed with NCGS, a process that can be made easier once testing rules out celiac disease. According to University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, an estimated 6 percent of Americans may have some level of gluten sensitivity. Though this might sound like an inconsequentially small figure, it translates into nearly 18 million people.

Another digestive condition that might be linked to gluten intolerance is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a particularly frustrating opponent, as its exact causes are unknown and it can trigger numerous symptoms:

  • Pain the abdominal area
  • A bloated feeling
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Mucus in stool

An estimated 15 percent of Americans have IBS, making it a fairly widespread problem. One factor behind this figure might be gluten consumption. A study published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Gastroenterology reported that IBS patients may be able to reduce their symptoms by cutting gluten from their diet. This study was conducted by researchers from the Mayo Clinic and involved 45 subjects, none of whom were on a gluten-free diet prior to the study.

Gluten and Your Health

Based on the evidence provided by the Mayo Clinic and the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, it would appear that some Americans could benefit from dropping gluten from their diet. Of course, additional research will be needed to better outline the potential risks of gluten. In the meantime, those concerned about the effects of this nutrient should seek the input of qualified medical professionals.

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