Going Gluten-Free

There is currently a lot of hype over the “gluten-free” diet, and many people are turning to this diet in hopes of improving their health, the way they feel, and even to shed a few pounds. People think gluten-free, and immediately think “no carbs!” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. A gluten-free diet is not a matter of avoiding carbs altogether; it’s a matter of picking the right carbs to eat.

Traditionally, those diagnosed with celiac disease are the ones to adopt a gluten-free diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease and a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in bread, cookies, pasta, pizza crust, and any other product containing wheat, rye, or barley. When people with celiac disease eat foods with gluten, they have a reaction in their small intestines that damages its inner surface, resulting in an inability to absorb nutrients.

The most common symptoms associated with celiac disease are diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. It is possible, however, to have celiac disease and experience no gastrointestinal discomfort. There is no treatment for celiac disease, but consuming a diet free of gluten can keep it under control. It is essential for people with celiac disease to eat gluten-free, or else they can become malnourished. Celiac disease can be triggered at any age.

Gluten intolerance is now also recognized as a legitimate health problem. People sensitive to gluten are likely to experience gastrointestinal symptoms as well as fatigue and headaches. In a study published in BMC Medicine, researchers described gluten sensitivity as a disorder distinct from celiac disease. A gluten intolerant person’s small intestine is not damaged by the consumption of gluten. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, but celiac may be the “tip of the iceberg for an emerging problem…of a group of gluten-reactive patients, accounting for roughly 10% of the general population.”

Gluten sensitivity is not yet fully understood, but many people are now claiming that by sticking to a gluten free diet, gastrointestinal symptoms vanish.

Studies are being done on the effects of a gluten-free diet on people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Down syndrome. Many people with ADHD and parents of children with ADHD have found that eliminating gluten helps control the behavioral symptoms associated with this disorder.

Gluten-free seems to be one of the hottest diet trends right now, and people aren’t just using it for medical reasons. Experts say, however, that a gluten-free diet doesn’t aid in weight loss, and a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthy.

Gluten-free products have generally been available only in specialty nutrition stores, but are now available in mainstream grocery stores like Tops and Wegmans. Ernie Davis dining hall on Syracuse University campus now devotes an entire section to gluten-free meal options.

Foods containing gluten are everywhere, even in places you might not expect it: in soy sauce, candy, salad dressings, beer, cold-cut meats, soup, and even hot dogs. Gluten is often used as a stabilizing agent and thickener in foods like ice cream and ketchup. People with celiac disease must be very careful to avoid those foods and read ingredient labels. For those who are gluten intolerant, the most critical thing is to avoid the basic gluten foods, such as bread, pasta and cookies. This doesn’t mean, however, that all carbs are off limits! Among the tasty gluten-free grains and starches are corn, rice, potatoes, tapioca, amaranth, millet, quinoa, chia seeds, and buckwheat (surprising because of its name). You can find gluten-free products in many stores, including pasta made from rice, gluten-free oats, and off-the-shelf mixes to make gluten-free pancakes and other baked goods.

So remember, gluten-free does not equate with carb-free, and there are many food alternatives for those on a gluten-free diet, including foods containing carbs that are both healthy and enjoyable.

By Emily Borgeest