By MICHAEL HERSHEY

Have you noticed how many gluten-free foods are now available at your favorite supermarket? Studies have revealed that about 1 in 5 Americans are trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diet.

Gluten is a sticky protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is commonly found in processed foods and baked goods.

Many Americans are choosing gluten-free because they believe it’s healthier and will help them lose weight. In truth, gluten only needs to be avoided for three medical conditions: wheat allergy, celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

There is some evidence that gluten-free eating may help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and dermatitis herpetiformis.

Claims of relief for headaches, depression, fatigue and nausea conditions remain unproven.

As mentioned earlier, gluten must be avoided for medical diagnoses such as wheat allergies.

Eating it will cause an overreaction from the body’s immune system, with symptoms ranging from rashes and hives to loss of breath and even death.

Since the allergy is specific to wheat, rye and barley can be consumed safely by these people.

Celiac is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. When eaten, it causes the body to damage the villi in the small intestine.

Although this is a very serious condition, only 1 in 133 Americans have celiac and, once gluten is removed from the diet, the villi will heal and regrow.

Research estimates that 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity. That’s about 6 times the number of people diagnosed with celiac.

These people do not test positive for celiac, but have symptoms which are very similar.

Newest studies indicate that gluten alone may not be responsible for symptoms, and suggest FODMAPs (a group of poorly digested carbohydrates) may actually be the problem.

In recent years, the American market for gluten-free products has skyrocketed. This is due, in part, to increased medical diagnoses, but also because of consumer demand.

More Americans are simply choosing to eat gluten-free products, but gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthier.

Gluten-free products are often higher in fat and sugar, while lower in fiber. Not surprisingly, then, common side-effects of gluten-free eating can be weight gain and constipation.

Wheat is a nutritious grain, and many wheat products are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals.

Rice, soy and nut flours are often used in gluten-free products. They are nutritionally unique depending upon the blend used and the amount of sugar added.

Whole-grain foods are great sources of fiber and nutrients. The USDA recommends that half of the grains we consume be whole grains.

Gluten-free diets are a must for people with medical conditions. To be healthy, they need to include a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, gluten-free grains, and some dairy foods.

Always see your medical doctor before beginning a gluten-free diet. If you have a medical condition that requires gluten-free eating, a dietitian will help monitor balance.

For more information on celiac disease and gluten, visit celiac.org or medlineplus.gov
Ohio State University Extension has a fact sheet: HYG-5589 “Gluten-free Eating: Important Considerations,” which is available via ohioline.osu.edu or by visiting Ohio State University Extension of Hancock County, 7868 Hancock County 140, suite B, Findlay, to pick up a copy.

Hershey is a Bluffton University intern doing his community rotation with Ohio State University Extension of Hancock County.

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