This is a popular term these days. What does it mean? Why is it so popular? A gluten free diet is used to treat celiac disease (an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten), along with wheat allergies, and non celiac gluten sensitivity. What is gluten, you may ask? What does it mean to be “gluten free”
I am not a doctor, nor an expert on celiac disease or other gluten intolerance, being very new to the whole concept. I am not gluten intolerant, though I know people who have this disease, and I had been asked to prepare some foods that do not contain gluten, for certain local functions. I had not the least concept of what this really meant. I knew gluten is found in wheat. I bake bread all the time, so of course I know that. I had no idea gluten is also found in barley and rye and a whole host of other things. This section is meant only as a beginner's primer on the subject, though I now understand how important it is even for one without a gluten intolerance to thoroughly understand what it means and how it can affect a loved one.
What is Gluten
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and other related grain species like spelt, kamut and triticale, and including barley and rye. This means it is also in any foods processed from these grains, or near these grains. The word “gluten” comes from the Latin for “glue”. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep shape, and can give the final product a chewy texture. As it is used as a thickener , gluten can be found in soups and broths, gravies , salad dressings, mayonnaise. It is added to the strangest and seemingly unlikely places. It is added to many yogurts, as it makes it a smoother, creamier and so called “more palatable” food. Gluten is also often found in the substance used to seal envelopes, since it acts as a stabilizer. Gluten is used to create protein supplements and meat substitutes (such as seitan), for people (such as vegetarians or vegans) who do not get enough protein in the diet.
What is Gluten Intolerance
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. Gluten intolerance is a term used to describe three conditions: wheat allergy, non celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. All three conditions are difficult to diagnose, so many people are unaware that this intolerance is at the root of other health issues.
Most forms of gluten intolerance cause the body to produce an abnormal immune response in the presence of wheat or its proteins. An allergy to wheat can produce symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing and digestive problems. In really serious cases, a person with this allergy can experience anaphylaxis. With celiac disease, which causes damage and inflammation in the small intestine, people may suffer from bloating, weight loss, fatigue and headaches, as the body cannot obtain all the nutrients it needs from food. Non celiac gluten sensitivity is even harder to diagnose, so most often these people are lumped into the celiac category.
Celiac disease is called an autoimmune disease, in that when a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, the immune system attacks its own body. It causes inflammation and damages the lining of the small intestine. Since most of our nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, one with celiac disease is less able to absorb nutrients from food. Additionally, this damage to the small intestine can also cause leaky gut syndrome, and fragments of proteins and toxins that should remain in the small intestine, now pass through the intestinal wall to the bloodstream.
What does it mean to be “Gluten Free”
Eliminating all sources of gluten from the diet can be a completely daunting prospect. To one just diagnosed as gluten intolerant, it might seem like the end of the world as one knew it. Giving up pizza, bread, cookies, beer is there still life after that?
Starting on a gluten free diet, one must make certain to attain enough fiber, folate, iron, niacin, riboflavin, selenium and thiamine; often lacking in a gluten free diet. Additionally it is important to not fill up on too many simple carbohydrates. Too many refined flours like white rice flour would not be a healthy start.
Read Food Labels
Reading food labels is an absolute must, but even reading labels with utmost care will not always give the answers one needs. Labels are confusing. Different countries label differently. The US FDA allows 4 times the accepted amount of gluten to be considered “gluten free” as Australia; a large difference. And then, gluten or wheat is in so many products one would never have thought. Who knew that licking an envelope might trigger an attack.
Foods to Avoid
It is easy to understand that wheat must be eliminated from the diet, but wheat is hidden behind a lot of other titles, such as bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina and spelt. Good gracious.
Things to avoid unless they are specifically labeled “Gluten Free”, or made with corn, rice, soy or other gluten free grain: Beer (generally made with wheat or barley), breads, cakes & pies, candies, cereals, cookies & crackers, croutons, French fries (commercial), gravies, imitation meat or seafood, matzo, pastas, processed luncheon meats, salad dressings, sauces (including soy sauce), seasoned rice mixes, seasoned snack foods (such as potato chips and tortilla chips), self basting poultry, soups and soup bases, vegetables in sauce.
Oats are controversial. Very often oats are grown in a field next a field planted with wheat. There is enough contamination there to cause severe reactions in some people. Also oats and wheat are often processed in the same facilities. Most doctors recommend avoiding oats entirely, unless they are labeled specifically “gluten free.”
Cross contamination occurs when gluten free foods come in contact with foods containing gluten. This can occur so easily and in unthought-of of ways just in the home. Wooden cutting boards or utensils that have been used with a gluten containing food must not be used when preparing something gluten free. Using a toaster that has been used for wheat breads is a major source of contamination. Any non wooden utensils must be thoroughly cleansed before using to prepare a gluten free food. If one uses wheat flour in a recipe, it can take up to 24 hours for the wheat dust particles in the air to completely settle. Or, using butter that someone else has swiped to butter a slice of wheat bread, leaving behind traces of that bread.
Cross contamination occurs in processing facilities when gluten free foods come in contact with foods containing gluten, such as when using the same equipment to make a variety of products. Some foods are labeled “may contain” but understand that this labeling is voluntary. Check the ingredient list. If you aren't sure if a food contains gluten, either don't buy it, or call the manufacturer to ask what it contains.
Gluten Free Now What
When initially eliminating all the gluten filled products from the diet, one can experience mild to severe withdrawal symptoms. Gluten's complex proteins trigger the body to manufacture chemicals similar to endorphins, producing a calm and relaxed feeling. Just as when an opiate consumption is stopped, one can experience a degree of withdrawal from gluten. This withdrawal can cause irritability and intense cravings. Additionally, as the body heals during the first week or so of going gluten free other possible side effects could be things like hives, mild rashes or headaches. This is because the body, and particularly the liver, as it is in the process of detox, can suddenly better process and eliminate toxins. Understand this is a process, and will pass.
Switching to a gluten free diet is a huge change, and as with anything new it requires getting used to all these new concepts. While one may initially feel deprived by all the restrictions, it may come as a pleasant surprise to find how many gluten free products are available. Many grocery stores or specialty stores these days have a section of gluten free products, such as breads, pastas and crackers. If they are not available in your area, check with a celiac support group or go online.
Above all, stay positive.