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Just what on earth is gluten anyway?
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley causing one to suffer pain and distress as it attacks the lining of the small intestine in those with celiac disease. The resulting inflammation interferes with the absorption of proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients, causing the person to feel sick most of the time.
As for symptoms: Gluten drains your energy and will make you irritable and anxious. Bloating, gas and severe stomach pains can send you to bed. Because of your aching bones and joints, you are pretty sure you will soon be on medication for arthritis, using a cane or a walker, or having a hip or knee replacement. You will be spending a lot of time running and sitting–with diarrhea and/or constipation. It causes your head to ache, and your mood to tank. Brain fog will have you doubting your sanity. Over time, this “villain” may cause some celiacs to develop anemia and/or osteoporosis. Symptoms are varied and there are many more than I’ve listed here.
Gluten affects each person differently and some may have only one worrisome reaction while someone else will have numerous complaints. Others may have no symptoms at all, plus, not all celiacs look undernourished. It runs in families and attacks all ages, even infants. It may take a few days, or unfortunately, even months, before those with celiac disease feel better after going gluten-free, depending on how long it takes for their intestine to heal. In order to avoid a false negative, a blood test must be done before going on a gluten-free diet, and an intestinal biopsy will help diagnose celiac disease.
Gluten also inflicts misery on those unfortunate enough to be gluten-sensitive, causing us to experience many of the same symptoms as the celiac when we eat gluten. But thank goodness, we feel better shortly after gluten is eliminated from our diet and there’s no damage to our small intestine. There’s no test for gluten-sensitivity. Keeping a food journal to see which foods cause discomfort, is our trial and error test. Gluten sensitivity may be the reason for some health problems in children. Treatment for us, and those with celiac disease, is a life-long commitment to a gluten-free diet. Some of my friends and family think I’m being deprived because I can’t eat “their” kind of food. Believe it or not, but there are hundreds, or thousands, of gluten-free alternatives on the market replacing anything they think I’m giving up. Even better, many recipes can be found online.
What a blessing to have found the cause and “cure” for my gluten problem that didn’t call for an operation or several unproductive visits to doctors. I also didn’t end up with many useless meds promising a litany of side effects, including coma, stroke, seizure, heart attack, cancer, suicide, or even early death–is there a late death?
Then there are those who have a wheat allergy, one of the more common food allergies in children. It isn’t as prevalent in adults. Symptoms are quite different in children including, but not limited to: itching, swelling, watery eyes, rash, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting or anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction requiring immediate medical treatment). Some children may even experience the same symptoms as those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Blood and skin tests are done to make a diagnosis, and their intestine is not damaged. Children will usually outgrow this allergy.
But wait, in spite of all the bad-mouthing above, let me make it clear, gluten is not “bad” for most people. It doesn’t trigger an immune or negative reaction in everyone. It’s like dairy causes much distress for those who are lactose intolerant, and some people can’t eat soy, seeds or nuts, but those foods don’t cause problems for most people. So, if gluten doesn’t steal your well-being, be thankful and enjoy your food. Don’t get caught up in the false notion that all those packaged gluten-free foods are “healthier” or “higher quality”. The gluten-free foods that are healthy are vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meat, poultry, dairy, fish, nuts, seeds and some grains.
Gluten is what gives dough elasticity which helps it to rise and keeps it from falling apart. It makes bread and rolls soft, light, fluffy and oh, so tempting. It’s what makes pasta, pizza, crackers, and baked goods, good.
Store-bought gluten-free foods often have more calories, fat, sugar and salt, than foods with gluten. They may also have less fiber and are missing some vitamins routinely added to wheat flour.
Those of us victimized by gluten must be diligent about reading labels and also look for the warning stating that the product is made in a facility that processes foods containing wheat. This can result in cross-contamination and leave us suffering and feeling terrible again.
Some gluten no-no’s: couscous, spelt, kamut, triticale, durum flour, graham flour, semolina, malted grains of rye, wheat or barley, bulgur, white flour, wheat germ, wheat starch, brewer’s yeast, farina, and enriched flour.
Watch our for these products with gluten:
Beer–malt in most beer is made from barley
- Malt products
- Some rice milk and soy milk–processed with barley enzymes
- Baking powder
- Some brands of dried spices
Licorice and some other candies
Many foods have gluten hidden in the list of ingredients: vegetable protein, wheat starch, gelatinized starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified starch, vegetable gum, vegetable starch, soy bean paste and some natural flavoring.
Gluten may also be found in a surprising number of products: toothpaste, cosmetics, hair products, play dough, Communion wafers, medicines, supplements, lip balms, and even in some pet food. The glue on some envelopes and stamps may also harbor gluten.
According to WebMD:
Take note that some cereals contain wheat starch and some use malt flavoring. Most crackers have wheat as one of their main ingredients. Beware of breaded foods, check ingredients. Crunchy coating on most chicken nuggets and fish sticks is generally made from wheat flour.
Of course cakes, pies, cookies as well as bread are loaded with wheat flour. When using frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, check for additives that might contain gluten. The same goes for processed cheese spreads and flavored yogurt.
*Read the post “Crackers and Seeds”
To see a short video for wheat substitutions in recipe
Check with your health care provider before making any major dietary changes.
- University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
- National Institutes of Health (nih.gov)
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
- The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center