In recent years, "gluten-free" foods have become very popular. There are gluten-free breads, gluten-free beers, even entire sections of grocery stores marked -- you guessed it, "gluten-free." So what's all the gluten-free commotion about, and do you need to be concerned with regard to changing your diet?
A small percentage of the population (less than one percent) is believed to have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to vitamin deficiencies and a host of health problems. Celiac disease is caused by the body's reaction to gluten, a protein found in many grains -- most notably, wheat. Because modern farmers have taken to producing wheat that is higher in protein, the incidence of those who suffer from celiac disease has been on the rise.
A larger percentage of Americans is believed to have a sensitivity to gluten. Estimates range to as high as 20 million among us who, in some way, suffer ill effects at the protein’s hands.
What is gluten?
To keep it simple, gluten is the "glue" that brings that wonderful
elasticity to foods such as bread. In fact, "gluten," actually is the Latin word for "glue." Without gluten in your wheat, you'd have breads that would be more suitable for use in the construction of office buildings.
Unfortunately, gluten is found not only in wheat, but in other grains as well. Barley, kamut, and spelt join wheat as the biggest culprits, though rice and oats are also suspects down at gluten police headquarters. So, just about everywhere you look, there’s gluten! This is what makes sticking to a gluten-free diet so difficult.
Wheat is so prevalent in our food products it's very easy to identify… but extremely hard to avoid. If you're going gluten-free, you can say good-by to, just to name a few: pizza, cakes, cookies, pasta, sandwiches, pastries -- basically everything that tastes good.
More insidious are the products that do not readily identify themselves as containing gluten. Some hot dogs, for example, even without the buns, contain gluten as the protein is added during processing and lumped in with a number of other ingredients listed only as "natural flavors." Many alcoholic beverages, candies, tortilla and potato chips, soups and so on, also contain gluten.
And if you're a vegan, you're really out of luck. Virtually every "meat substitute" from tempeh to Tofurkey is chock full of the stuff. You might have to look into a
If you’re a condiment fan, the news isn’t so good either. Catsup and mustard use gluten as a thickener. Barbque sauces and even soy sauce also often contain gluten in the form of hydrolized or fermented wheat protein.
How do you know to stay away?
The best way to determine if you've got a sensitivity to gluten is to take any one of a number of tests available online. There are tests that screen for celiac, and others that determine whether or not you're sensitive only to wheat.
If you experience generalized, chronic symptoms such as digestive upset, mood swings, headaches, skin rashes, and fatigue, gluten sensitivity testing may well be worth looking into. There are many tests from which to choose, and many organizations that would be only too happy to help you with determining your level of sensitivity.
Remember, there's nothing inherently wrong with gluten unless it’s a substance that your body cannot metabolize. Gluten has been in our food ever since mankind started harvesting grains and turning them into things we like to eat.
Proponents of a gluten-free lifestyle claim that, whether you're sensitive to gluten or not, adopting a gluten-free diet can improve your cholesterol level, promote digestive health and greatly increase your stores of energy. Once "gluten-free," though, you'd not be able to eat fried foods due to flour coatings, virtually no snack foods, and many desserts and carbohydrate meals would be entirely off limits. For many of us, that’s a healthier diet right there!
A gluten-free diet? Really?
If, after testing, you are found to have a sensitivity to gluten, there are excellent resources on the web that will help you to plan a new diet, and tasty gluten-free recipes abound. Sites such as
To gluten or not to gluten. That is the question!
Juliana Weiss-Roessler is an experienced freelance writer and sometime-contributor to Weight Loss Triumph, which gives you
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