Gluten is a protein composite found in grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. This protein can cause reactions in people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Gluten intolerance can manifest itself as a wide range of symptoms. Here are some of the most common ones, although the list is by no means exhaustive:
- abdominal pain and cramping
- attention deficit disorder (ADD)
- stunted growth (due to poor absorption of nutrients)
- teeth and gum problems
- unexplained weight gain or weight loss.
The number one symptom, though, is actually fatigue. How many people may not relate fatigue to a gluten reaction though?
Celiac disease — a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of gluten in genetically predisposed individuals — can cause damage of the villi in the intestinal lining, resulting in a gradual decrease in the ability to absorb any nutrients from ingested food, leading to stunted growth and malnutrition.
The damage that is done to the intestinal lining also leads to a higher likelihood of leaky gut syndrome, which can create other types of food sensitivities and systemic health issues.
In the case of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the protein composite escapes the confines of the digestive tract and makes its way into the bloodstream. When the protein composite reaches the brain, it can cause damage, leading to mood issues, attention deficit, and sometimes learning disabilities.
Usually, an elimination diet is the most common way to confirm gluten intolerance. However, ideally, blood or stool testing for allergens should be done first so that biomarkers indicating celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be confirmed. Once gluten is removed from the diet these markers may not be visible.
If you indeed test positive for gluten sensitivities, care needs to be taken to avoid gluten in your diet. Grains such as wheat, barley, bulgar, kamut, spelt, and rye are, of course, the obvious foods to avoid (oat and oatmeal themselves do not contain gluten, but can be contaminated due to the processing and manufacturing process).
However, there are also hidden sources of gluten in the food supply that you may not be aware of. These can include:
- cheese spreads
- flavored yogurt and other frozen dairy products
- hot chocolate mixes
- candy/energy bars
- soup mixes and canned soups
- processed meat (hot dogs, sausages)
- gravies and other sauce mixes
- tomato sauce (ketchup)
- nut butter
- soy sauce
- drink mixes and other packaged beverages
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein (found in many prepared or processed foods)
- children’s play-doh
- some nutritional supplements
- some medications
- some cosmetics, such as lipstick
Since gluten can be found in so many hidden sources, it’s best to stick with whole foods as much as possible. If you have to buy processed and packaged foods, read the labels carefully, and pick ones that have as few additives as possible.
It’s also good to keep in mind that if you decide to go gluten-free that your diet isn’t automatically going to be healthy. There are “good” and “bad” gluten-free diets. Many processed gluten-free foods can also be laden with lots of sugar. So the solution is really to eat plenty of foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Changing your diet may not be easy at the beginning, but with just a little practice, the right tools, and knowledge, it can be a smooth transition.