You're in the mood for something sweet and wander guiltily through the baked goods aisle at the grocery store. You spot an attractively wrapped package of chocolate chip cookies with a prominent gluten-free label. Unfortunately, those cookies are as nutritionally void as their gluten-containing companions. Gluten is, for most people, an innocuous protein which gives bread and other similar foods a chewy texture. Although there are conditions which make gluten elimination necessary, a gluten-free diet is not advisable for the general public.
Most people digest gluten without any difficulty. Individuals with celiac disease, however, are sensitive to even trace amounts of the protein in their food. Fifty milligrams of gluten -- equivalent to that found in one crouton -- can trigger a severe reaction for affected individuals, according to Holly Strawbridge, former editor of "Harvard Health." The protein causes an immune response which damages the small intestine. Additionally, those with celiac disease may incur other related problems including malnutrition, seizures, infertility, osteoporosis and nerve damage.
A related but distinct condition is called gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Individuals with gluten sensitivity do not exhibit a severe reaction to the protein, but experience a series of symptoms including gas, bloating, cramping, fatigue, diarrhea and balance issues. While sensitive individuals can eat gluten without any damage to their health, they generally feel better on a gluten-free diet.
There is nothing inherently healthy about a gluten-free diet -- it simply means excluding all foods which contain the protein. Giving up normal pasta, bread, crackers and other carbohydrates is just the beginning. Many condiments, soups, sauces, canned goods and other packaged foods contain gluten. Individuals with celiac disease must pay meticulous attention to food labels to keep their diet clean. Fortunately, the gluten-free market has expanded considerably in recent years to accommodate affected individuals. Gluten-free is not synonymous with health food, however. Cookies, cakes, white bread and other refined carbohydrates are bad for your health whether they contain the protein or not.
If you do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it's best not to adopt a gluten-free diet, according to Strawbridge. Fortified breads and cereals which contain gluten are an essential source of B vitamins in the American diet. Fortified products are particularly important for women who are or may become pregnant as they contain a B vitamin called folate which prevents birth defects. Additionally, whole-grain, gluten-containing carbohydrates supply the body with fiber -- a nutrient necessary for good bowel health.
If you suspect you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consult your physician before you eschew gluten. Adopting a gluten-free diet first may obscure the tests necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
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