Separating the chaff from the grain: Gluten-free diets

Have you noticed that when you walk into one of the large chain supermarkets, it seems there’s an aisle for almost everything: Seasonal items, international foods, pharmacy, pet food, organic sections and, now, gluten-free products?

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and daytime television, stomach sufferers have more to worry about these days than ever before. Between the mysteries of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and new advances in identifying and treating ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, salivary stones, lactose intolerance, Crohn’s Disease, and heart burn, our stomachs are in knots…understandably.

For many of us, it’s often just about eating too much; eating at the wrong times; or enjoying too much of the wrong thing. As the holidays approach, we’ll be facing tables laden with tempting pastries, cakes and cookies, pasta and breads of every sort. For people who have or suspect they may have issues related to grains, eating healthfully poses a problem. But what exactly is “grain sensitivity” such as gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, and how can you determine if you have it?

Understanding Celiac Disease and glutens

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person can’t tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten shows up in bread and pasta, but may also hide in many other foods such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer, and even candy and sweetened drinks.

If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. That hampers the absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. Celiac patients also struggle with symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach upset, abdominal pain, and bloating.

Celiac Disease affects approximately one percent of Americans. It may take years to diagnose because people don’t seek medical help, and because doctors often mistake it for IBS or other stomach disorders. It’s often a waiting game, and a process of testing and running through a list of possible culprits. For long-term sufferers, years of poor calcium absorption, a related side effect, can lead to joint and tooth problems and, for women, delayed menstruation. Besides gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten-sensitive people often complain of fatigue and headaches, as well.

The “good news,” at least for people with gluten allergies or sensitivities, is that a strict, gluten-free diet can typically allow the intestines to restore themselves to health and alleviate your suffering. While only one percent of Americans have Celiac Disease, as many as 10 percent may be gluten sensitive, which often causes similar symptoms, but doesn’t appear to damage the patients’ intestines.

Celiac Disease is on the rise, with rates doubling about every 20 years in Western countries.  Ironically, researchers suspect that hygiene may play a role in that expansion. Due to far cleaner environments and hygiene, children today aren’t exposed to as many antigens in the environment while their immune systems are developing. This, it’s theorized, may result in our immune systems responding intolerantly toward glutens.

Though Celiac Disease can be diagnosed through a blood test and an intestinal biopsy, there’s no reliable test for gluten sensitivity. Diagnosis requires a historical perspective (it often runs in families) and discussion and tracking of symptoms. In fact, patients are typically asked to eat glutens so the body produces antibodies for the blood test to detect Celiac disease. If a person simply stops ingesting gluten, a Celiac disease diagnosis can be missed or delayed.

Hardly a “fad diet,” gluten-free eating is life-changing for many, but not if you don’t have gluten sensitivities or Celiac Disease. In these cases, going “gluten free” is not good for your health. Contrary to common belief, a gluten-free diet won’t aid weight loss, and can cause deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients that we typically gain through bread, cereals and other grains that are fortified. Additionally, gluten-free products on store shelves are typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium, and lower in fiber.

With proper direction, people can bake healthier breads at home, varieties that are higher in fiber and protein and made with gluten-free grains that have been certified to be uncontaminated and gluten-free, such as quinoa, amaranth, or millet. Either way, if you suspect you may be gluten sensitive, talk with your physician – there is hope, and  many tasty alternatives!

###

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!