Why Gluten-Free?

Food, Hometown Cooking
on November 22, 2011

Gluten-free diets are nothing new, but they are getting more attention these days, and an increasing variety of gluten-free foods can be found on grocery store shelves. For many people, gluten is nothing to worry about. A smaller percentage of the population struggles with digesting and processing gluten, leading to painful physical problems. So why gluten-free?

What is gluten? Gluten is a type of protein. Gluten is found in wheat, wheat products and related grains, such as barley and rye.

Who should avoid gluten? People with celiac disease or those with gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten entirely. In fact, avoidance is the only treatment for the disease. Following a gluten-free diet will eliminate symptoms and lead to intestinal repair, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine PubMed Health. People without these conditions have no reason to avoid gluten. Eliminating all gluten from the diet can make it more difficult to get enough protein, fiber, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D and magnesium in your diet.

Celiac disease vs. gluten sensitivity. According to the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. The body overreacts to the protein gluten with inflammation and intestinal damage causing uncomfortable symptoms. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, doesn't show up in diagnostic blood tests for celiac disease, states a report from the Wall Street Journal. Additionally the intestines in gluten sensitive people don't show any abnormality. Diagnosis of gluten sensitivity comes from the personal history of reactions to gluten. Gluten-sensitive people can have just as much discomfort as people with celiac disease, however, which is why gluten avoidance is recommended for those individuals.

Symptoms. While each individual reacts differently, some common symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • abdominal pain
  • gas and bloating
  • indigestion
  • nausea and vomiting
  • low appetite
  • constipation
  • weight loss

Symptoms of gluten intolerance can be similar to those of celiac disease, but also may include dozens of other seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as joint pain, headaches and fatigue.

Foods that contain gluten. The Mayo Clinic offers a partial list of foods that contain gluten. Wheat, barley, rye, bulgur, durum, farina, graham flour, semolina, spelt, triticale and oats contain gluten. So do products made with those ingredients. Some medications may even contain gluten. Gluten-free diets are complex to manage, so you may wish to consult a dietitian for advice. There's hidden gluten in many foods you might not suspect, so inspect the nutrition information of everything you plan to eat. For example, soy sauce is a source of hidden gluten, as are many processed foods.

What foods are gluten-free? The Mayo Clinic lists certain grains and starches that are safe in the gluten-free diet. These foods include amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn, cornmeal, rice flour, soy flour, corn flour, potato flour, bean flour, meats, fish, poultry, fruits, most dairy, potatoes, rice and veggies, as well as wine and distilled liquors, ciders and spirits.