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Gluten. Chances are you never even heard the word until a couple of years ago and now it seems like that’s all that anyone is talking about. No matter where you go from the campus, to the office, to the health food store, everyone is weighing in on gluten and you may have wondered what the heck all the fuss is about.

We’re here to tell you that it’s worth your time to find out about gluten. It can be a matter of life or death.

Here is our short course on gluten, what it is, what has everyone talking, and whether you should consider making some changes in your diet.

Gluten 101

What the heck is gluten? Gluten is a protein. It is found in many grains like barley and rye, and in all forms of wheat. It’s one of the substances that make food good – giving it body, texture, substance, and oomph. But for millions, that oomph comes at too high a price. While gluten is a protein, it is not as digestible as other proteins and that’s the problem. Some folks have real difficulty digesting gluten. They eat it and it makes them sick, miserable, or just uncomfortable. You may be one of those people. If you are, you might be gluten sensitive. Other people are completely intolerant of the stuff, so much so that it can make them deathly ill. 

Am I Eating It?

If you consume pizza, breakfast cereal, or donuts, probably; if you nosh on a healthy serving of one slice whole grain wheat toast, absolutely.  You tend to find it in most of your simple carbs including pasta, crackers, pastries, baked goods, pancakes and even beer.

It shows up in many places as an additive that you would never expect.  Salad dressings, soy sauce, supplements and even lipstick. 

When in doubt you almost have to assume any processed food has gluten.

Will it make you sick? That depends.

For the 1 in 133 folks living in the United States with celiac disease, gluten is bad news. The old adage, “moderation in everything” doesn’t apply to celiac sufferers. No amount is of gluten is good for them, even a tiny amount can set up an immune response that attacks the small intestine. Untreated, celiac disease leads to improper absorption of important vitamins and nutrients, causing everything from malnutrition to osteoporosis and even some cancers.

For the millions of people that are gluten sensitive, gluten is still bad news – it may not go so far as to damage the small intestine, but it still makes them very sick, with the same miseries experienced by celiac sufferers. These symptoms include, but are not limited to: nausea, bloating, gas, fatigue, stomach pain, headaches, cramping, dizziness and diarrhea.

Those symptoms alone don’t necessarily mean you are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease. Medical professionals often misdiagnose or miss gluten problems completely, confusing these common symptoms with a host of other illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, food allergies, and irritable bowel syndrome.

How do you know if you’ve really got a problem with gluten?

You may have suspected certain foods make you feel bad. Perhaps you noticed how bloated you felt after an Italian dinner or after a visit to the neighborhood bakery. If you have been suffering some of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, especially after eating food like pizza, pasta, and cereal, you might want to investigate.

You can run your own experiment and eliminate gluten from your diet for anywhere from 30-60 days. See how you feel. If your symptoms go away while on the gluten-free diet, you know you have some problem with the protein. 30-35% of humans do and we know that gluten sensitivity is on the rise. Researchers explain that could be a result of the packaged and processed foods we eat, the medications we take, poor nutrition, exposure to chemicals, even stress – all factors that disrupt the naturally occurring microbes in the digestive tract. 

The next question becomes how sensitive you are to the protein and how severe your particular gluten symptoms are. Not everybody suffers the same. You might just feel bloated and a little nauseous after eating some gluten-containing foods. Only you can know for certain which foods make you miserable. You may choose to stay gluten-free if your gluten symptoms go away, or you can try to gradually add back gluten-containing foods and see how you fare. You may find only a few particular foods give you problems. 

The only way to be absolutely sure you have full-blown celiac disease is through a blood test. If it comes back positive a biopsy will be done to see if there is inflammation in the small intestine. If there is, that will confirm the diagnosis. Although fair warning, the lab test only picks up one of the six proteins found in wheat and other grains. That means there are five others proteins that alone or in combination can still be a real problem.

Given all those possible reactions, shouldn’t we all just give up gluten? Well, there has been a lot of buzz lately that suggests giving up gluten is the next best thing to – well, everything BUT sliced bread. If you were to believe the media hype and fad diet fans, going gluten-free is the next new weight loss sensation: give up gluten and see the pounds melt off. Nonsense. In fact, some people go overboard, consuming all kinds of packaged and processed “gluten-free” products loaded with sodium and sugar and actually gain weight. 

Gluten is not necessarily unhealthy. Unless you have gluten sensitivity, there is no reason to abolish practically an entire food group of breads, pasta and grains. Gluten can be included in an overall healthy diet containing high fiber whole grain breads, which we know are an excellent source of B vitamins and iron. Also remember that wheat is not your only source of good grains. Rice, quinoa, sorghum are good gluten-free options. 

If you are truly gluten sensitive, be very careful. Gluten can show up in the most unlikely places so be a good, prudent consumer and read your labels. An excellent source for gluten products and gluten free options is 

Bottom line?  Experiment.  Eat a gluten free diet for a few weeks and see how feel.  Does your digestion improve?  Then slowly introduce food with gluten and see how you react.  The results just might change your life.

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