Unless you abstain from social media and the news, you’re hearing the words gluten free a lot lately. Many folks are increasingly associating those words with a healthier diet, or weight loss, but what exactly does gluten free mean? And more importantly, is it right for you?
The Mayo Clinic’s Web site defines a gluten-free diet as “a diet that excludes gluten protein.” But just what foods contain gluten protein? And what reasons would a person have for making the change from a regular diet to a gluten-free diet?
The reasons are varied, but some of the most common symptoms associated with both Celiac disease -- an autoimmune disorder of the small intestines -- and gluten intolerance are bloating, gas, cramping, irregular bowel movements, and general fatigue. Just because you might be experiencing some of these ailments, you might want to hold off on taking gluten out of your diet without first consulting with a medical practitioner.
Mia Courtemanche, RD (registered dietician), for St. Mary’s Weight Management and Wellness Program, cautions anyone who suspects that they may have a digestive issue related to gluten to seek medical advice before removing gluten from their diet.
“A lot of times people will self diagnose then see a doctor, and the doctor will tell them to start eating gluten again so they can do the test,” said Courtemanche.
Learning which foods contain gluten protein is a bit more involved. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, kamut, spelt, teff, and couscous: think breads, pastas, processed foods, and baked goods. Many gluten-free forums, as well as medical web sites also suggest avoiding soy products as they have been thought to sometimes trigger inflammation of the digestive system in those who are allergic or intolerant of gluten.
“Gluten is in anything made from wheat, rye, and barley. Oat is usually included in this list because they are usually made in the same processing plant and a lot of times they are cross-contaminated; unless they specifically say they are gluten free,” said Courtemanche.
Lauren Breau, an L.Ac (licensed acupuncturist) in Portland, cautions that while these symptoms may not seem overly serious, if the reason behind a person’s digestive issues is Celiac or even gluten intolerance, professional advice and diagnosis should be sought. The "danger" of consuming gluten if you are gluten-intolerant or allergic is that the finger-like projections in the small intestines called villi become inflamed and can erode over prolonged periods of exposure to the irritant.
“The villi in the small intestine are essential in (the body) getting nutrition from foods,” said Breau, who also provides her patients with nutritional counseling from a Chinese perspective.
After diagnosis, Courtemanche says gluten intolerance and Celiac are treated with diet. To make this transition successful she recommends seeing a dietician to develop a diet or strategies for a personalized gluten-free approach to eating.
“A lot of our society is based in fast food, processed foods, or prepackaged foods and a gluten-free diet is a lot healthier in that you have to eat more natural,” explained Courtemanche. “If you’re not used to cooking things from scratch, it’s a huge change. You can no longer just pop something in the microwave and be good to go. You’ve really got to explore if you’re going to eat anything prepackaged.”
After years of suffering with digestive issues ranging from discomfort to pain, Andrea Breau, of Winthrop, said she was first given a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and encouraged to add fiber to her diet. When that failed to decrease symptoms, and it was clear she was also not lactose intolerant, she finally sought a physician who was also a naturopathic doctor. After blood tests for Celiac disease came back negative, the doctor suggested she still try a gluten-free diet for a month.
“It’s hard to describe how constant digestive issues interfere with every part of your life. Whether it was sports in high school, or sitting in class after lunch in college and my stomach was so loud – embarrassingly loud -- that the teacher would stop and ask if I was speaking,” explained Andrea, Lauren’s sister. “I was sort of at my wit’s end and willing to try anything.”
With her doctor’s encouragement, Andrea began eliminating gluten-laden products from her diet. This is a task that can vary in difficulty based on how each person ate previously. So much of what we consume contains some form of gluten, and finding alternatives requires research. There are, however, far more options now than a decade ago, said Lauren.
“You can’t do it overnight, you have to be patient and you have to be creative,” advised Lauren. “It’s quite a transition since most people have some sort of baked goods like bread as part of their diet. You have to learn how to read labels.”
Andrea said that one of the factors that made her switch to gluten free easier was the fact that her partner’s family is from India and much of their diet consists of rice-based dishes.
“I started in June of 2008 or 2009 -- I swear that in two weeks to a month almost all of my digestive issues had cleared up,” Andrea said.
Andrea also says the elimination of gluten-laden foods has allowed her to focus on just enjoying life.
“I’m not constantly worried; I can go anywhere, I can play sports – it may seem silly, but there’s more freedom,” Andrea said of being gluten-free.
Continuing to consume gluten products can potentially cause long-term damage, but Courtemanche said a benefit, of sorts, typical to individuals with gluten intolerance or Celiac is they will feel sick immediately and that is usually enough incentive to avoid those foods in the future.
“Every once in awhile I find myself in a situation where I don’t have a whole lot of choice and I have to eat gluten. Any time that I do, the symptoms come back almost immediately. I’m back to feeling pretty awful and it takes another two to three days for the symptoms to clear up again,” Andrea explained.
Courtemanche cautions that while it can be a healthier way of eating, it is not necessary for everyone and only those individuals with Celiac or gluten intolerance should remove all gluten.
If you’re newly diagnosed or have discussed a gluten-free diet with your physician or dietician, Courtemanche offered these tips to help for a smoother transition:
· Embrace it. Stay positive.
· Try new things. You might be surprised what you like.
· Alter old favorite recipes with gluten-free ingredients.
· Seek gluten-free forums and other support systems.
· Let family and friends know you’re eating gluten free to prevent accidental consumption of gluten foods.
· Seek professional advice.
· Avoid pre-packaged, costly gluten-free alternatives when possible.
· Learn how to read labels.