A gluten allergy is the body's inability to digest or break down the gluten protein found in wheat and certain other grains. Gluten intolerance (also known as a gluten sensitivity) can range from a mild sensitivity to gluten to full-blown celiac disease. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about one out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease. This is a severe autoimmune disorder in which a person's immune system attacks gluten, if consumed, in the small intestine.
Although the exact cause of gluten intolerance is unknown, most theories revolve around changes in the way that wheat is grown and processed. One theory states that wheat is higher in gluten than it once was because it makes bread "springier" and easier to slice. Another possible cause is the way wheat is grown at a higher rate — bred to produce higher yields or to make it disease-resistant.
For those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance is not just an inconvenience — it can be debilitating. In such cases, you must not eat any foods containing gluten. Gluten can cause long-term damage to your small intestine, and may result in nutritional deficiencies. Currently there are no known cures or effective treatments for celiac disease. Diet is still the most effective “cure” and preventative measure.
A simple blood test that measures levels of antibodies associated with celiac disease can reveal if you have the condition. However, tests for gluten intolerance often come back negative. This may cause you to believe it’s okay to eat gluten, even though it may lead to symptoms such as fatigue or irritability.
Wheat is one of the main staples of a Western diet and is public enemy number one for those with a gluten allergy.
In addition to pure wheat, all of its forms are also off-limits. This includes:
- wheat starch
- wheat bran
- wheat germ
- cracked wheat
- fu (common in Asian foods)
- graham flour
The list of gluten-containing grains doesn't end at wheat. Other offenders are:
- oats (oats themselves don't contain gluten, but are often processed in plants that produce gluten-containing grains and may be contaminated)
- triticale and Mir (a cross between wheat and rye)
Gluten may also show up as ingredients in barley malt, chicken broth, malt vinegar, some salad dressings, veggie burgers (if not specified gluten-free), and soy sauce. The protein may even hide in many common seasonings and spice mixes.
The list of off-limit items may seem daunting at first. Thankfully, there are plenty of replacements on the menu. Lots of foods are naturally gluten-free, including:
- fruits and vegetables
- dairy products
- lean beef
Many other grains and foods are gluten free as well:
It may seem daunting to go gluten-free at first. But for many, the advantages far outweigh the inconvenience. The first step is to get rid of all the gluten-containing products in your kitchen and stock it with alternatives such as gluten-free breads, pasta, crackers, and cereals. For baking, use substitute flours. These can include:
You'll need xanthan gum or guar gum as a substitute for gluten when baking. Stick to unprocessed, fresh, whole foods to naturally stay gluten-free.
Eating at restaurants can be particularly challenging when considering a gluten allergy, but this doesn’t mean you can’t ever dine out. You should be able to dodge the gluten bullet if you stick with the same types of items you eat at home, such as grilled meats and steamed vegetables.
Foods to avoid in restaurants include fried foods, certain sauces, or anything that has been fried in the same pan with a gluten-containing food.
Celiac disease requires extra caution when eating out. Make sure that dietary restrictions are communicated to the chef in advance. Certain restaurants are almost certainly out of question for those on a gluten-free diet, including fast food restaurants, buffets, salad bars, and most bakeries. On the flipside, some establishments, such as vegetarian restaurants, cater to the gluten-free diet.
If you have celiac disease, being gluten-free is essential for your health. A gluten-free diet may seem too challenging to deal with, but with time — and a bit of effort — it can become second nature. If you can, start off gradually, so you can get used to going gluten-free. For example, you might try one completely gluten-free meal per day and gradually add more meals until gluten is completely out of your diet. Also, a gluten-free diet is easier if you shop at stores and eat at restaurants that cater to your dietary needs. If you want complete control (and guarantee that your food is gluten-free), cooking from scratch is the easiest way to avoid gluten. Discuss any specific dietary considerations with a doctor or nutritionist.