More and more groceries and health food stores stock gluten-free products. That’s good news for people with celiac disease, who for health reasons should not eat wheat with gluten.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein in wheat and some other grains, such as rye and barley. A gluten experiment in food science at the University of Maryland left a lasting impression on me about the function and importance of gluten . I kneaded bread dough under flowing water. As I kneaded the dough, the starch slowly washed away. What remained was a rubbery mass — the gluten — the protein in wheat that gives bread its structure.
Yet paradoxically, most of the people who reach for gluten-free products don’t have celiac disease and or even a sensitivity to wheat, Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, told WebMD. “The market for gluten-free products is exploding. Why exactly we don’t know. Many people may just perceive that a gluten-free diet is healthier.”
In fact, it isn’t. For people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential. But for others, “unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Green.
Experts estimate that about 1% of Americans have celiac disease. The condition, caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, can damage the lining of the small intestine. That, in turn, can prevent important nutrients from being absorbed.
Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, anemia, bone pain, and a severe skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. But celiac disease often has few or no symptoms. In part for that reason, only about 5% to 10% of cases are diagnosed in the U.S., Green says.
People try gluten-free diets in response to feeling tired, bloated or depressed, and find reducing gluten correlates with feeling better or losing weight. But that outcome is more likely because they’ve cut out the excess calories found in many flour-based snack foods, and they mistakenly attribute feeling better to taking out the gluten. So, before you rush into a gluten-free diet, why not try something simple, say an apple … or exercise? Or would you prefer a life of no bread, pasta or birthday cakes?