Gluten-free foods are the hot new trend in supermarkets and restaurants, but gluten-free eating isn't a crazy fad diet. For people with a sensitivity to the grain protein gluten, the gluten-free diet is an effective medical treatment. In mild to moderate cases, gluten sensitivity causes unpleasant digestive symptoms when gluten is eaten. In severe cases, it can cause permanent and life-threatening health complications.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Beer, wheat flours, malt, malt vinegar and breads are common sources of gluten. Gluten provides a distinct taste and a chewy texture to foods, so food manufacturers also add it to sauces, cheese, fillers and flavorings. Most people can eat gluten with no ill effects. People with a gluten sensitivity, however, have problems digesting this protein, and need to follow a gluten-free diet.
When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, antibodies attack the small intestine, potentially causing permanent damage. The cause of celiac disease is unknown, but the condition is on the rise, affecting nearly 1 out of every 100 people. If left untreated, the damage to the small intestine affects nutrient absorption, leading to malnutrition. If vitamin D and calcium absorption is affected, the person can develop brittle bones or osteoporosis. Due to this intestinal damage, people with untreated celiac disease have an increased risk of bowel cancer and lactose intolerance.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a less severe case of gluten intolerance. Affecting nearly 6 percent of the population, this condition causes abdominal discomfort, headaches, confusion or irritable bowel syndrome when gluten is ingested. This type of gluten sensitivity does not cause permanent damage to the small intestine, so the serious complications of celiac disease are not associated with this type of gluten sensitivity.
If you experience bloating, abdominal distress or headaches after eating foods that contain gluten, ask your doctor if you should be tested for gluten sensitivity. Do not go on a gluten-free diet before the test, or there may not be enough gluten in your body to show a reaction. If you are diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is the only way to avoid symptoms and complications. Read food labels closely for hidden gluten. Plain rice is gluten free, but seasoned rice mixes may contain gluten. Some ingredients that contain gluten include triticale, durum flour, semolina and spelt. Gluten-free flours are made with soy, rice, nuts or beans. For side dishes, use gluten-free substitutes such as corn, rice, quinoa and gluten-free pastas.
Jennifer Dlugos is a Boston-based writer with more than 10 years of experience in the health-care and wellness industries. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and film production classes throughout New England. Dlugos holds a master's degree in dietetics.