“Gluten free” is big news these days. Some folks choose a gluten-free lifestyle, others (such as myself) were tossed into the pool and left to sink or swim. I’ve listed some of the reasons for adopting a gluten-free diet below, along with a brief summary of each. Since I’m a cook, not a doctor, please refer to the links and resources, or (better yet) your own physician, for actual medical information.

CELIAC DISEASE

Celiac disease, also known as nontropical sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a hereditary condition caused by an immune response to gluten. (Gluten is a ubiquitous protein in our diets, primarily found in wheat, barley, and rye.) In those with Celiac disease, this immune response can damage the lining of the small bowel and lead to malabsorption. Symptoms can stem from the gastrointestinal tract, like diarrhea, excessive gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. They can also emerge from inadequate absorption of critical nutrients, leading to fatigue, anemia, and neurologic and endocrine disorders.
Celiac disease can be diagnosed at any age; you cannot outgrow it. The only way to manage Celiac disease is through a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet. (Note: If you plan to get tested for Celiac, do so BEFORE adopting a gluten-free diet, so as to assure accurate test results.)

More information:

Center for Celiac Research & Treatment

DERMATITIS HERPETIFORMIS

A skin disease related to gluten intolerance. Even though it may not cause digestive symptoms, it can have the same reaction on the small intestine as Celiac disease. Consequently, a gluten-free diet is required.

More information:

Celiac Sprue Association “Dermatitis Herpeteformis Defined”

WHEAT ALLERGY

A true allergy to wheat (or other foods) is characterized by an IgE-mediated response within the body. Reactions are often immediate, and can include hives, vomiting, or life-threatening anaphylaxis. Food allergies can usually be diagnosed through skin testing.

More information:

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
American Academy of Family Physicians

GLUTEN SENSITIVITY

Sensitivities (or intolerances) to gluten are elusive and complicated to diagnose. They are more prevalent than allergies, but the symptoms are often more varied and gradual than in Celiac or a true allergy. These symptoms can be similar to those of Celiac (digestive issues, fatigue, neurological) or can include headaches, depression, and a wide range of other ailments. The best way to test for gluten sensitivity is through an elimination diet, but do not start the elimination until you’ve ruled out Celiac disease.

More information:

Wall Street Journal article “Clues to Gluten Sensitivity”

Q&A with Dr. Alessio Fasano, M.D.

LIFESTYLE

Once you hear the word “gluten free” for the millionth time, it’s bound to sound intriguing, right? Even if your body processes gluten without a hitch, try cutting it out of your diet for 3-4 weeks and gauge the results. (And don’t just eat less; cut it out completely. See how your body reacts.) You may notice increased energy, less bloating, and an overall sense of well being. I wouldn’t necessarily go into it with the expectation of losing weight, though that potential certainly exists. Substituting gluten-free junk food for regular junk food gets you nowhere; use the time as an opportunity to introduce new, naturally gluten-free foods into your life.

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