Food manufacturers and restaurants have increased their options to include gluten-free foods. This has caused a general increase in curiosity among consumers; many people are now asking, “Should I be gluten-free?”
Eating gluten-free may not be for everyone. But nowadays more and more people are needing to go gluten-free due to medical concerns, allergies and sensitivities. Living completely gluten-free is a medical necessity for individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive tract and is treated only through diet.
Also known as celiac sprue, celiac disease affects one in 133 people, or about 1% of the population. For individuals with celiac, even the slightest crumb of gluten can trigger an autoimmune response, in which the body tries to protect itself from the foreign objects. These attacks damage the intestine, causing malabsorption, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies. They also cause many unpleasant symptoms, such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss or weight gain. Untreated, celiac can also lead to such complications as anemia, neurological disorders, osteoporosis and even cancer.
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, like wheat, barley and rye. It is also found in commercial oats due to the cross-contamination that occurs at time of harvest. Because gluten helps make foods taste better and improves their texture, it is also added to many common foods from deli meats to French fries. For most people, gluten is completely harmless, unless they have been diagnosed with celiac disease or with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is believed to be more widespread than celiac disease, affecting an estimated 18 million Americans. It’s similar to celiac disease in that it also involves an immune reaction to gluten. But unlike celiac disease, that reaction doesn’t cause the body to produce damaging antibodies. So while an individual with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may have many celiac-like symptoms, he or she won’t experience the same intestinal damage, nutrient deficiencies or long-term complications.
Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a gluten-free diet. Living on a gluten-free diet is a way of life for many and it can be achieved.
Starting a gluten-free diet can seem extremely restrictive; many find it difficult to follow if not medically necessary. It presents psychological and social challenges when it comes to eating and making food choices. Many gluten-containing products are considered nutritious whole grains. Eliminating gluten from the diet will limit the intake of fiber and most B-vitamins normally found in the diet.
Before you consider trying a gluten-free diet, or if you suspect that you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it is important that you get screened by your healthcare provider. In order to get accurate testing, gluten must be present in the diet.
According to the National Institutes of Health  a simple blood test can help properly screen for celiac disease. A series of the following blood tests should be ordered to measure the body’s immune response to gluten:
- Anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA) both IgA and IgG
- Anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA) – IgA
- Anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG) – IgA
- Total IgA level
If the results of the blood tests are positive, the next step is to have a medical procedure called an endoscopy. The biopsy samples will be studied by a pathologist to determine whether there is damage to the lining of your small intestine.
If diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, avoid any possible contamination of gluten in food preparation or hidden ingredients in food products, medications and lipsticks. Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in gluten intolerance can ensure that you receive all the nutrients needed for optimal health.
Keep in mind, baked goods labeled gluten-free are typically made with more fat and sugar to compensate for the lack of gluten, making them higher in calories than regular products. Just because an item is labeled gluten-free does not automatically mean it is better for you. A gluten-free cookie is not deemed nutritionally superior to a regular cookie. Make sure to read the nutritional information on packages and balance out your food choices making sure you eat foods from each food group.
If you are debating going gluten-free, remember to talk to your healthcare provider about getting the proper testing done before trying the diet.
If you or a family member is looking for more information/resources on how to live gluten-free, visit Baptist Health’s Gluten-free Support Group . Open to the community, the group meets the first Monday of every month at Baptist Hospital’s Medical Arts Building , Suite 105, at 7 p.m.