What Does Gluten-Free Mean?

Chances are, you've heard of gluten-free recipes and foods. But just what exactly is gluten? Your neighbor has "gluten issues," or you've read about celebrities who've touted a gluten-free diet as a detox miracle. But while gluten -- a protein found in common grains such as wheat, barley, and rye -- has been a hot health topic, it's much more than just a fad. Here's what you need to know.


Get to Know Gluten

For many people, foods with gluten can lead to severe digestive issues and, over time, serious conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and intestinal cancers.

So what is gluten, actually? Gluten is a gluey protein that's present in our most common dietary staples, such as bread, pastas, cereals, and desserts. It's an essential ingredient in most conventional baked goods because it creates the "fluffy" quality of cakes and muffins and binds doughs, giving them their moist texture.

However, gluten can also found in unlikely grocery items, such as:

  • beer
  • soy sauce
  • salad dressings
  • malted candies
  • processed cheeses
Your Top Gluten Questions -- Answered

A lot of people say they're allergic to gluten -- are they? Not really, no. Humans are not allergic to gluten, per se; they are either gluten "sensitive" (which researchers say affects 30 percent of the population) or they've developed a more dangerous autoimmune disease called celiac (which plagues about one in 100 Americans, often undiagnosed).

What the experts say about gluten allergies: "With celiac disease, the body's autoimmune response is first to attack the gluten and then attack its own cells. This causes serious damage over time. With gluten sensitivity, the glutinous food never gets fully digested, leading to inflammation and irritation in different areas of the body," says Dr. Vikki Petersen, certified clinical nutritionist, director of the HealthNow Medical Center in Sunnyvale, California, and author of the book "The Gluten Effect."

How do I know if I have problems with gluten? Because gluten intolerance affects a wide range of systems in the body, its symptoms can be far-reaching and varied. They include major and minor gastrointestinal issues such as chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, acid reflux, and IBS, along with anemia, malnourishment, infertility, recurrent miscarriages, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

How is it diagnosed? You can ask your physician to rule out celiac disease with a simple blood test or an intestinal biopsy. If you're worried about a gluten sensitivity, Petersen recommends you cut out all foods containing gluten from your diet for a month and then add them back in and see if the symptoms return. The gold standard for diagnosing any food sensitivity is elimination and provocation, which means living gluten-free for at least a month and then trying to eat the food again, she says. "You have to really commit to the diet, though--if you're not perfect with it, the test won't work."

Will I lose weight if I go on a gluten-free diet? Tricky question. On a gluten-free diet, malnourished celiac sufferers who have intestinal damage as a result of the disease will often gain weight. As for everyone else, cutting out glutinous carbs can lead to weight loss, but only if they're replaced with nutritious, high-quality foods. What's more, many packaged gluten-free foods actually have less fiber than their gluten- containing counterparts and are more starchy. "If you take out refined white-flour desserts and replace them with gluten-free, refined tapioca flour desserts, you're still getting the same empty calories and you┬┐re not going to lose weight," Petersen explains.

What if I test positive for celiac or gluten sensitivity? Consult a nutritionist or dietitian who has experience with gluten-intolerant patients. The only treatment is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. (Specialists believe that an amount as small as an eighth of a pinky nail can cause damage to the digestive tract.) Because gluten lurks in so many common foods in the standard American diet, cutting it out can initially seem daunting, if not downright impossible.


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