Do you follow a gluten-free diet? Why? Have you been tested for celiac disease or are you just self-diagnosing? I just read the results of a 2010 nationwide survey by the market research firm Packaged Facts. They were asking people their top reason for purchasing gluten-free foods? Amazingly it was not because of celiac disease or even gluten intolerance. Almost half (46%) believe that gluten-free foods are “healthier”. Thirty percent believe they will help manage their weight, and 22 percent felt that gluten-free foods were “generally higher quality”.
First let’s look at why people should not self-diagnose. Let’s say that your problem really isn’t celiac and that you do not have intolerance to gluten. Wouldn’t you be interested to know your “true” problem? For example, other diseases that mimic celiac are Chrohn’s disease, peptic ulcer disease, and colon cancer. These conditions could go untreated while a person focuses on a gluten-free diet. Currently celiac affects only one percent of the population so chance are good that you could be suffering from something else.
Celiac is a chronic autoimmune disease triggered by gluten, which damages the lining of the small intestines. This damage blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients, leading to malnutrition, even if you are eating what appears to be a healthy diet. To know if you do have celiac, a person needs a simple blood test and small intestinal biopsy while consuming a gluten diet for accurate results.
If you are one of the 46 percent of people thinking gluten-free foods are “healthier”, a study has shown that these foods have less fiber and vitamins, they are not fortified, and they are highly processed and high in fat. Therefore, you may be getting a lot of wasted calories – so much for managing your weight!
In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed the following definition for “gluten free”: a food can contain no barley, rye, or wheat (or its relatives: spelt, kamut, and triticale), and gluten can comprise no more than 20 parts per million. The problem with that proposed definition it that it was never finalized. In fact, the FDA met again in May of this year but still was unable to come up with a definition for gluten-free products. An article in the Huffington Post this past May stated “the $2.6 billion (compared to $100 million in 2003) U.S. gluten-free product industry currently has quite a bit of wiggle room. The Washington Post explains that some companies “might fail to test their products or might allow small amounts of gluten but still label their foods as gluten-free”.”
Without a more scientific approach to gluten-free diets, those with celiac disease may not be taken seriously in restaurants and by the food industry because everyone thinks it’
s just a “lifestyle” choice. Even small amounts of gluten can damage the intestinal tract for these people, and it is a lifelong disorder which should be taken seriously.
If you feel you may have this autoimmune disease, you might think about getting tested before giving up gluten products. Who should be tested? According to Joseph Murray a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, “anybody who has a family member with celiac disease or symptoms that are suggestive of celiac disease – like iron deficiency anemia, chronic diarrhea, bloating, gas, or abdominal pain. People with type 1 diabetes or autoimmune diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis in the family also should be tested.”
A gluten-free diet is difficult to follow. Gluten is hidden in many products such as, lipstick, beer (barley), bouillon cubes, cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage, gravy, rice mixes, soups, and soy sauce. It can even be used as filler in supplements and medications. Words like “vegetable protein” or “wheat starch” mean “gluten”! There are a lot of junk gluten-free products, such as cakes, cookies, brownies, doughnuts, muffins, granola bars, etc. On the other hand there are healthy gluten-free food items such as: vegetables, fruits, beans, low-fat dairy, seafood, and poultry. Also, rice, potatoes, corn, oats, and quinoa are also gluten-free.
So what’s the bottom line? Avoiding gluten does not fix every health problem. Celiac and gluten intolerance are serious issues and one should be tested before jumping on the gluten-free band wagon. I have a lot of empathy for people with celiac and gluten intolerance. It is difficult to be gluten-free and one must learn to become a detective. You must learn all the “names” for gluten. If you are extremely sensitive, eating at restaurants can be a problem due to cross-contamination, unless they have a separate kitchen and equipment. If you stick with some real food like veggies, fruits, beans, etc., which don’t have gluten (never did, never will!), you will be providing your body with the fiber and nutrients it needs. Also, there are some grains out there you can use instead of wheat, such as quinoa – so maybe it’s time to go explore!