In the world of trendy diets, the latest is gluten free. Many people are eliminating gluten in the hopes of improving their health and their quality of life. Is this a reality or a fad? If you think you may have gluten sensitivity, eliminating or reducing gluten can dramatically change how you feel. Fatigue, bloating or diarrhea, trouble losing weight, eczema, and achy joints are but of a few of the symptoms experienced by people with gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity is one of the fastest-growing health concerns in the country today. It has been postulated that as many as 15 to 35 percent of the population may be gluten sensitive. Gluten sensitivity is not Celiac disease, although both are triggered by the ingestion of gluten. Both may also have an immune reaction, but gluten sensitivity does not damage the small intestine. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition which affects many systems in the body although its main target is the small intestine. Here it destroys the intestinal villi and affects the absorption of nutrients. Gluten sensitivity is not as well understood nor is it as well-defined, but some people have a problem with gluten, nonetheless.
What is gluten? Gluten is a protein that is the combination of the proteins glidan and glutenin that are found in wheat and cereal grains. It’s the sticky protein that is binding and gives bread and bagels their wonderful chewy texture. Wheat, barley, bulgur, rye, spelt, kamut, triticale, semolina, pumpernickel, and faro all contain gluten. Gluten is also hidden in products you’d never suspect: infant formula, spice mixtures, salad dressings, vegetable gum, natural flavorings, marinades, ketchup, chewing gum, soy sauce, processed meats, modified food starch, MSG, certain medications, ice cream, and many more. If you are eating processed food, you are consuming gluten.
Why are so many more people gluten sensitive today than years ago? No one knows for sure, but there are a number of theories. One theory is Americans consume a tremendous amount of grain today and this high gluten load may be responsible for the spike in symptoms. In the 1950s the average grain consumption was 155 pounds per person per year. Compare that to 200 pounds per person per year in 2000.
Another theory is related to how agriculture has changed in the last 30 years. The small local farm has been replaced with gigantic farm factories (agribusiness). This leads to less diversity in the grains grown and potentially more use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Others postulate it may be the high prevalence of leaky gut. Leaky gut is an increased permeability of the small intestinal lining that leads to an alteration in the complex barrier system that separates what’s in our gut from the rest of our body. This protective system determines what substances may be allowed to cross from the inside of our small intestine to our bloodstream. When molecules breach this protective barrier our immune system is activated and antibodies are made against the invading molecule.
Page 2 of 2 - Although we may not agree on why there is an increased incidence in gluten sensitivity, most everyone agrees gluten sensitivity is rising. If you suspect you may be gluten sensitive, the first step is to eliminate gluten from your diet. Because gluten is so pervasive in processed foods, it’s important to read labels. Try going gluten free for two weeks. Evaluate how you feel. Do any of your symptoms decrease or subside? Keep a food journal during this time to see if there are any trigger foods.
Remember there are many healthy and delicious grain substitutes: amaranth, arrow root, buckwheat, garfava, Job’s tears, mesquite, millet, montina (Indian rice grass), ragi, rice, sorghum, soy, tapioca, and teff. All these grains are high in vitamins and fiber. Read labels and look for “gluten free.” There are many gluten free products available today such as breads, pastas, crackers, and even cookies! Remember, a gluten free diet is not necessary for everyone, but if you are one of a growing population of those sensitive to gluten, removing gluten can improve your health and how you feel.
Barbara Goshorn, RN MSACN, is a registered nurse with over 30 years of clinical experience. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in nursing from SUNY Brockport and her Master’s of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York Chiropractic College. She is Rochester’s only registered nurse nutritionist. Visit her website at thenursenutritionist.com for more information.