Give Up Gluten? Why and What It Means to Be Gluten-Free

Gluten is everywhere. It's in bread, it's in pasta, it's in cupcakes. This wheat protein even sneaks into unexpected places like canned soup, salad dressings, and oatmeal. For most people, this is no big deal. Gluten is a key factor in giving bread its chewiness and cupcakes their airy crumb. So why give it up? Here's a quick rundown of the major reasons why some people need to eliminate gluten from their diet.There are three major reasons why someone might need to give up gluten for health reasons: if they've been diagnosed with celiac disease, if they have a gluten intolerance, or if they have an allergic reaction to wheat.
Celiac Disease - According to the Mayo Clinic, people with celiac disease have an immune reaction to the gluten in wheat, rye, and barley that causes damage to the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of vital nutrients. Symptoms can be as mild as digestive problems and minor skin rashes or as severe as anemia, arthritis, and intense abdominal pain. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many people have celiac disease in the United States, mostly because so many people go undiagnosed, but most health experts put it in the range of 2 to 3 million people.

Gluten Intolerance - There are also a large number of people who have a sensitivity to gluten or are gluten intolerant. These people experience many of the same symptoms as those with celiac disease, but without the accompanying damage to the small intestine. There are also some theories and studies linking gluten intolerance to things like chronic fatigue, depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Wheat Allergy - A wheat allergy is actually a completely separate condition from gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. It's a histamine reaction to wheat, much like a peanut allergy or a shellfish allergy. People with this allergy usually show hives, rashes, or stomach pain after consuming wheat.

In all of these cases, eliminating wheat and gluten from the diet clears up all the major symptoms. The lining of the small intestine heals and intestinal discomfort fades. The trick is that it has to be total elimination of gluten, meaning no wheat, barley, or rye in any form. For many people, even ingesting a small amount of gluten by accident can bring on a recurrence of the symptoms.

And while many people think that gluten can be eliminated simply by removing breads from their diet, the truth is that gluten is in many, many processed food products, so going to a gluten-free lifestyle often means eating much less processed food and cooking from scratch more often. This is a good thing, but it's also hard to not be able to eat out in restaurants, or have the same conveniences that others do. In fact, it can be a real shock to go to a gluten-free diet overnight, and we've heard from many readers struggling with this transition.

With this brief overview of gluten-freedom, we'd love to hear your stories. If you eat gluten-free, what led you to go gluten-free? How long have you been gluten-free? What has been your experience? How have you found ways to cook and eat gluten-free?

We'll have more recipes for you this week, and discussions and ideas for healthy, comforting gluten-free cooking at home!

Some Additional Information and Gluten-Free Resources:
Celiac Disease from the Mayo Clinic
Should You Go Gluten-Free? by Kristin Ohlson from Eating Well
How to Get Started from Gluten-Free Living
Celiac Diagnosis from Celiac Sprue Association

Related: Brittle to Bibingka: 20 Gluten-Free Treats

(Images: Flickr member Whatshername? licensed under Creative Commons; King Arthur Flour)

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