Gluten is everywhere. It's in all the obvious places — like bread, pasta, and cupcakes — and it's the key to giving bread its chewiness and cupcakes their airy crumb. But this wheat protein even sneaks into unexpected places like canned soup, salad dressings, and oatmeal. And for most people, this is no big deal.
So why are so many people giving it up? Here's a quick rundown of why some people are eliminating gluten from their diet.
3 Reasons to Go Gluten-Free
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.
1. 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.
2. 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 studies linking gluten intolerance to things like chronic fatigue, depression, irritability, and anxiety.
3. 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.
What It Means to Be Gluten-Free
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.
Going to a gluten-free lifestyle often means eating much less processed food and cooking from scratch more often. It also makes eating out in restaurants more challenging. 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?