A decade ago, celiac disease, gluten intolerance or the gluten-free lifestyle diet were relatively unknown in the public’s eyes for dietary conditions and considerations. But fast forward to present day, gluten-free foods and products have made an astounding 30% compound annual growth rate just between 2006 and 2010. In 2010 alone, it increased another 16%. Today, more than 25% of Americans are concerned with gluten consumption. People affected are unable to eat foods with gluten, the storage proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley.
While celiac disease affects a small 1 % of the U.S. population, experts estimate that as many as 10 % have a related and poorly understood condition known as non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI), or gluten sensitivity. In celiac patients, gluten causes their bodies to produce antibodies that attack the intestine. If untreated, the disease can lead to low energy and fatigue, skin problems, muscle weakness, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, and other auto-immune disorders as well as osteoporosis and, in some cases, infertility.
Whether confirmed as the celiac disease through blood tests or self-diagnosed as intolerant through the process of elimination eating, is removing certain foods from one’s diet to identify the potential cause of a symptom healthy or dangerous?
For people with gluten intolerance, digestive symptoms are triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is primarily found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye, eliminating all breads, pastas and most alcohols is the first step. In many cases, it requires monitoring trace elements of protein present in foods or its preparation becomes necessary lest upset stomachs, painful GI tracts or other debilitating symptoms strike. Many medical doctors argue that long-term adherence to the gluten-free diet might result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and if someone does not have gluten intolerance, they are dangerously putting their body in harm from the lack of certain nutrients.
It is important for people to note that eating a diet composed solely of gluten-free baked goods is not the healthiest approach to wellness, for anyone, celiac or not. This dietary practice could result in weight gain, since gluten-free baked goods generally contain more calories than their gluten-filled counterparts. Instead, the take away of the gluten free diets should be centered on nutritionally balanced diets that just happen to eliminate gluten. Unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy are naturally gluten free and are the best sources for vitamins, minerals and fiber. There are also vitamin supplements that can be taken and a myriad of food sources that have proven to fill in the loopholes of a gluten free diet.
Growing awareness of gluten sensitivity has led some people who struggle with gut problems but have tested negative for celiac disease to take matters into their own hands and try a gluten-free diet, even though it's an extremely difficult diet to follow.
People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity usually have stomachaches, gas, and diarrhea -- as do people with IBS. People living with Celiac disease can also develop headaches, tingling, fatigue, muscle pain, skin rashes, joint pain, and other symptoms, because the autoimmune attack at the root of the disease gradually erodes the wall of the intestine, leading to poor absorption of iron, folate, and other nutrients that affect everything from energy to brain function. Gluten intolerance starts in the intestines as a process, but doesn't necessarily stay in the intestines. It may affect other organs. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is a gray area that lacks any defining medical tests. People who fall into this group exhibit the classic symptoms of celiac disease yet have no detectable intestinal damage, and test negative for certain key antibodies (though in some cases they may have elevated levels of others).
A recent study conducted by Dr. Fasano of the University of Maryland Mucosal Biology Research Center (and Celiac disease research center) and his colleagues, offers some clues about what gluten sensitivity is, and how it differs from celiac disease. Although they show no signs of erosion or other damage, the study found, the intestines of gluten-sensitive patients contain proteins that contribute to a harmful immune response, one that resembles -- but is distinct from -- the process underlying celiac disease.
Blood tests that can diagnose gluten sensitivity by measuring these and other proteins are in the works, but they are still a ways off.
"The reason we don't have tests yet is mainly because we don't have a clear definition of [gluten sensitivity]," explains Dr. Fasano.
People with celiac disease must commit to an absolutely gluten-free diet, as eating the protein can, over time, increase a person's risk of osteoporosis, infertility, and certain cancers, in addition to worsening gastro-intestinal problems.
➭ Some of the many gluten-free products on the market can be unhealthy, because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to simulate the texture and satisfying fluffiness that gluten imparts. Another potential pitfall is that gluten-free products are less routinely fortified with iron and vitamins B and D than regular bread products.
➭ When eating gluten free, select more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, and more naturally gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, rather than just buying prepackaged products labeled "gluten free."
➭ Gluten-free products are "evolving" and may become healthier overall as manufacturers develop ways to fortify them.
Resources: Mayoclinic.com, livestrong.com, celiac.org