For those with gluten issues, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news first. Recent research suggests that as many as 1 in 133 Americans have celiac disease. When a person with this autoimmune disease eats even a tiny bit of gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) the small intestine becomes damaged and nutrients cannot be fully absorbed. This can lead to other health issues, including infertility, osteoporosis and osteopenia (a loss of bone mineral density), and even some cancers.
There are more than 300 symptoms of celiac disease, including itchy rash, depression, chronic fatigue, anemia, numbness, and diarrhea and/or constipation. Take the Celiac Disease Symptoms Checklist at CeliacCentral.org.
If you suspect you have the disease, ask your doctor for a blood test. “Do not stop eating gluten before getting the blood test,” advises Joan Panepinto RN, RD, a nutritionist with French Meadow Bakery. If you’ve already given up foods with gluten, she recommends returning to a glutinous diet for one month prior to testing for accurate results.
If the blood test is positive, arrange a small-bowel biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and check for intestinal damage. Continue to eat a diet containing gluten until the biopsy and then embark on a gluten-free diet.
There are many people who don’t have celiac disease but who don’t feel well after eating bread, crackers, cereals, or pasta. Reactions may include abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. In these cases, gluten intolerance is likely, Panepinto says. “Your body’s trying to give you the clues.” The only current treatment for celiac disease is avoiding foods containing gluten. People with gluten sensitivity may also want to cut back on foods with gluten.
The good news is that as awareness of gluten issues increase, resources are being created to meet demand. There are online support groups:
The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America
The Celiac Sprue Association
Raising Our Celiac Kids
There are many cookbooks that are geared towards Gluten-Free diets and a growing number of companies that make gluten-free foods from digestible grains including corn, rice, and teff. “We use teff, an ancient grain that originated in East Africa, in our gluten-free wraps,” says Jan Remak, executive director of sales and marketing for La Tortilla Factory. The company also provides recipes on its packaging. In addition to wraps, consumers can now find gluten-free soups, flours, snack bars, pizza doughs, breads, burritos, tortilla chips, cookies, dessert mixes, crackers, and cereals on the shelves of their favorite natural food store.
“Gluten free is one of the fastest growing segments of our company,” says Matthew Cox, marketing manager of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods. “Of our more than 400 products, 50 are gluten-free.” The company also offers hundreds of gluten-free recipes on its website: www.BobsRedMill.com
“It’s not such a burden to be on a gluten-free diet,” Cox continues. “I’m not going to say it’s easy, but compared to 10 years ago, with regard to food options, it’s night and day.”