This Lesson will introduce you to important information you should know about gluten and being gluten-free. You’ll want to know because once people find out you’re gluten-free they will ask you to explain what gluten is and why it is an issue. In essence, YOU will become the expert!
What is Gluten?
Let’s start with a definition of gluten from Webster’s Dictionary:
“A tenacious elastic protein substance especially of wheat flour that gives cohesiveness to dough.”
The Concise Encyclopedia gives a more detailed explanation:
“Mixture of proteins not readily soluble in water that occurs in wheat and most other cereal grains. Its presence in flour makes production of leavened baked goods possible because the chainlike gluten molecules form an elastic network that traps carbon dioxide gas and expands with it. The properties of gluten vary with its composition, which differs according to the source. Thus, doughs range from soft and extensible to tough and elastic, depending on the gluten in the flours.”
These definitions, however, leave out critical details about eating gluten-free.
As stated gluten is a protein in cereal grains, but it shows up in much more than just dough and wheat products. The common definition of gluten in the medical community (and as I refer to it throughout the book) is:
“A protein composite that comes primarily from wheat, barley, and rye.”
This is a much broader definition, and specifies other grains to avoid when going on a gluten-free diet. The gluten in wheat, barley and rye is used in many ways — not just in baked goods.
[Sidebar]Not all gluten is bad for those eating a gluten-free diet. In particular, corn and rice gluten don’t have the same protein structure as gluten from wheat, barley, or rye. In fact, you’ll find that many gluten-free products are made from rice and corn. [/Sidebar}
How is Gluten Used?
Gluten has beneficial characteristics that make it a useful ingredient in a variety of food and products. Gluten…
- Adds elasticity
- Is a filler
- Is a thickener
- Adds protein
- Is a flavor enhancer
- Is a binder
Given the expanse of benefits, you’ll find gluten in all kinds of food you come in contact with every day!
A few examples of food containing gluten that might surprise you (since they are not baked from dough) are:
- Salad dressing
- Seasonings/spice mixes
- Soy sauce
In addition to food, gluten can be present in cosmetics, shampoos, and flavored drinks. The list of foods that contain gluten is long. It seems like just about everything has gluten in it when you are first starting out on this diet.
But wait! Have hope! Many foods and products are made without gluten, and they are made by brands you know and trust (which I’ll discuss in upcoming Lessons).
But, before I go into the world of gluten-free foods, I want to help you understand why gluten can be an issue for some people.
Why is Gluten a Problem?
Now you know what gluten is and how it can be used. Why is it such a problem?
Gluten causes negative reactions for people with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease), or for people sensitive to gluten proteins.
Why would gluten cause this reaction? It’s an unanswered question in the medical community, and there are many assumptions as to why. But what is known is that reactions do occur, and the causes are not “in your head” as some doctors and health professionals used to think (and, sadly, often still do).
Gluten sensitivity is real, and it reveals itself in many ways. For some, the reaction to gluten occurs on their skin; for others as indigestion. Others might have celiac disease. Health problems differ depending on what kind of gluten sensitivity a person might have.
First, there is non-celiac gluten sensitivity – also known as gluten intolerance. Gluten intolerance is not an auto-immune disease like celiac, but the symptoms can be quite similar. With gluten intolerance, problems can be digestive or allergic reactions. The resulting symptoms range from diarrhea and gas to lethargy and fogginess. It can also cause rashes, headaches, nasal congestion and a variety of other negative reactions that clear up when gluten is removed from the diet or topical products.
Then, there is celiac disease. Celiac is an auto-immune disease caused by gluten sensitivity. With celiac disease, gluten is a problem because the body believes gluten is something it should fight and this results in an immune response.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is the most common autoimmune disorder in the world, and affects adults and children. As many as 1 in 100 healthy adults have celiac disease, and even more are likely to have it if they experience the typical symptoms.
Gluten specifically causes damage to small villi (hair-like threads that absorb nutrients from food) in the upper part of the small intestine. When gluten comes into contact with villi, the body sees it as an invasion – like from a virus or poison. The body’s immune system reacts and attacks the gluten and this attack causes damage to the villi. When villi flatten the body can no longer absorb nutrients from food. And without proper nutrients conditions can occur such as osteoporosis, infertility, malnutrition, iron deficient anemia, and sometimes cancer.
How do people get celiac disease? Celiac is most likely to occur in individuals with a certain genetic makeup. They may not be born with the disease, but possess the genes to contract it. However, there are cases of people being diagnosed with it even though they don’t have the genetic predisposition.
In some individuals celiac and associated symptoms can appear rather suddenly. But others may have celiac for years with no recognizable or “silent” symptoms. An unknown trigger can set off the disease in the body without any warning, and it is not consistent from person to person.
Celiac is not a food allergy, nor is it the same as gluten intolerance. It is not a cold or virus. Unfortunately, once celiac becomes active a person can have the disease for life. But other forms of gluten sensitivities may disappear over time.
How do you know if you have celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten? One way to tell is to be tested for it. Another way to tell is to recognize if you are experiencing the typical symptoms. The symptoms are classified in the medical community as classical, atypical, and silent.
What Are Symptoms of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?
Many possible symptoms exist for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. And to make matters more complicated, each person has their own unique signs of it.
Should you be tested for celiac disease? If you, your children or anyone in your extended family have symptoms like those outlined below then yes, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting tested.It is important to have an official celiac diagnosis before going on a gluten-free diet. Once you switch to eating gluten-free, it becomes difficult for doctors to use the more standard tests to make a viable diagnosis. Standardized tests detect how the body reacts to gluten both in blood work and how villi in the small intestine look. The moment you start eating gluten-free your body’s — if it’s sensitive to gluten — healing process begins, which makes getting an accurate diagnosis more difficult.
Classical symptoms differ between adults, young adults, and children. (Please keep in mind I‘m not a physician. The lists below are an aggregation of information from books, the Internet, and my own personal experience.)
SYMPTOMS FOR CHILDREN
- Stunted growth, or “failure to thrive” as some physicians call it
- Large, distended belly
- Child looks like they are starving or malnourished
- Vomiting after meals
- Decreased appetite
- Unable to gain weight, or are losing weight
Although this isn’t a complete list, these are the most common symptoms Infants and children with sensitivity to gluten tend to have digestive symptoms. If they are not getting the nutrition they need, it becomes obvious very quickly.
While listing these symptoms I became emotional thinking about our daughter when we were struggling to figure out what was wrong. After all these years it’s still difficult to get doctors to order the tests for celiac disease, but this is slowly changing. If your doctor dismisses your concerns about gluten or is not knowledgeable about the disease, find one who is. If you see these symptoms in your child, be persistent and get the tests done! The sooner you know what is going on, the healthier your child’s life will be.
SYMPTOMS FOR YOUNG ADULTS AND ADULTS
- Stunted growth
- Abdominal pain
- Bloated with gas
- Weight loss / underweight
- Persistent skin rash
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Chronic diarrhea
- Iron deficiency
- Gallbladder issues
- Persistent skin rash
- Dermatitis Herpetiformis
- Folic acid deficiency
- Unexplained infertility
ATYPICAL AND SILENT SYMPTOMS
It’s common for adults to have multiple symptoms as well. Sometimes adults are asymptomatic until some other secondary disease like diabetes reveals they also have celiac.
If the symptoms above describe you, your child or a relative, it is important to see a doctor to determine if the problem is indeed celiac disease.
Thankfully, celiac and its symptoms are treatable by eating a gluten-free diet. Isn’t it nice to know that simply changing your diet could be a cure? No surgery, no medicine … just smart, healthy eating.
How Are Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance Cured?
At the risk of stating the obvious, the way to be 100% gluten-free is to stop consuming gluten. Period!
The time it takes to get healthy and symptom-free varies from weeks to months, and can stretch to years for people who have lived a long time with undiagnosed celiac disease. Most celiac and gluten sensitive people start to feel better within days of beginning a gluten-free diet. Yes, it can happen that quickly!
- In this Lesson you learned that gluten is a microscopic protein that comes from wheat, barley, and rye.
- You learned that the gluten protein can cause unpleasant reactions in people sensitive to it.
- Celiac disease is the most common autoimmune disorder in the world, and people who have it must eat a gluten-free diet for life.
- The symptoms for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are varied and unique to each individual. Therefore, it is important to get tested for celiac disease if you experience any symptoms before you embark on a gluten-free diet.
- The way to treat gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is by going on a gluten-free diet.
But eating gluten-free is not easy. Or is it? Eating gluten-free can be made much easier if you have a good plan in place.
We’ll talk about making a plan in Lesson 2!