By Dr. Susan Mathison
A few days ago, I popped onto Facebook and asked a few friends:
“What’s something you’d love to see me write about?”
That’s not surprising. I am often asked about it in my office. And at cocktail parties, in the grocery store and in the hallway at school.
“Gluten” has exploded into our consciousness over the past couple of years.
Just about everything at the grocery store – from corn chips to specialty baking mixes, bottled water and fresh apples – now proudly bears the label “gluten-free.”
But what do all of these new labels and buzzwords actually mean?
Here’s the real dirt on gluten – straight from an MD.
Gluten: what is it, anyway?
There are four types of protein found in grains:
But, not every grain contains all four proteins.
Certain grains contain gluten; other grains don’t.
Grains like durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, rye and barley contain gluten.
Grains like rice, corn, quinoa, yucca and millet are gluten-free.
Celiac disease, wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity
Celiac disease is a serious condition that affects about 1 in 100 people worldwide.
If you have Celiac disease, it means that your body cannot process gluten at all – not even a tiny crumb.
If you have Celiac disease and you eat gluten, your immune system will try to “attack” it. This leads to small intestine damage … which is not a good thing.
If left undetected or unmanaged, Celiac disease can lead to other health problems including diabetes, anemia, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, and even intestinal cancer.
You must be eating gluten for the damage to be recognized. The gold-standard for diagnosis is a small bowel biopsy take via an endoscope.
The only way to deal with Celiac disease is to completely avoid gluten.
Wheat allergies are not the same as Celiac disease.
If you have a wheat allergy, you might be allergic to gluten and/or you might be allergic to one of the other proteins found in certain grains (albumin, globulin or gliadin).
If you have a wheat allergy, eating wheat products can cause hives, swelling, itching, rashes and in some cases tightness of the throat and difficulty breathing.
Your small intestine isn’t being singled-out for attack, but your entire body can get seriously upset, even to the point of deadly anaphylaxis.
The only way to deal with a wheat allergy is to avoid wheat products, completely.
Gluten sensitivity is not the same as Celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
It can be uncomfortable and unpleasant.
If you are sensitive to gluten, it means that eating gluten can make you feel foggy, tired, give you a headache or make you feel bloated or constipated. Not life-threatening, but definitely not much fun!
However, many people who think they are sensitive to gluten are actually sensitive to something else. Some people feel better gluten-free for a few weeks, then their symptoms return.
The Big Eight
Ninety percent of food sensitivities are connected to 1 of the following eight foods:
5. Tree nuts
7. Wheat / grains (all 4 types of protein, not just gluten)
If you feel chronically foggy, icky, bloated or just “not good,” it’s a good idea to rule out all of the possible culprits, one by one, before immediately leaping to the conclusion that gluten is the problem. This is called an elimination-challenge diet.
To do this, you’ll need to completely remove all of the Big Eight from your diet for at least three weeks. You’ll need to closely track your body to see how you feel once all of the potential culprits have been removed.
Then, one by one, add each food back into your diet.
Here’s a sample plan:
• Week 1 through 3: Completely remove all eight from your diet.
• Week 4: Add milk back in.
• Week 5: Add milk and eggs.
• Week 6: Add milk, eggs and fish.
• Continue down the list, adding one food each week.
• Keep going until you reach a week where, suddenly, you feel “not so good” again.
Which food did you re-introduce into your diet that week? That’s probably the culprit.
Identifying food sensitivities can require a considerable amount of time, patience and experimentation.
Realize there’s controversy in the medical community about food sensitivities, especially gluten. We don’t have an test that can absolutely identify sensitivities.
But if you’re really feeling unwell, it’s worth the effort to see which foods support your body and which ones seem to create problems.
Final word on gluten-free
There are people who absolutely cannot and should not eat gluten because of Celiac disease or allergy.
There are people who should avoid gluten as much as possible for comfort’s sake.
There are people who can happily enjoy as much gluten as they please.
Everybody is different, and we all have unique dietary needs.
That being said, it’s important to look at all facets of health – not just food.
It’s tempting to villainize a particular food (“Fat is the devil!” “Carbs make people fat!” “Gluten is ruining my life!”), but creating a lifetime of good health requires more than just removing one particular food group from your diet.
Food is certainly important, but you might also need better quality sleep, more water, more exercise, less noise pollution in your home, more time with friends, more laughter (it lowers stress hormones), something else or all of the above!
Celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten sensitivities are all very real things.
If you’ve got one of those conditions, it’s important to know about it and make the necessary adjustments to your diet.
But it’s equally important to remember that “health” isn’t just what you put in your mouth.
It’s how you feel about yourself.
It’s how to talk to yourself.
It’s how you live your life.