Going Gluten-Free

Raise your hand if you swore off carbs or lactose only to gravitate back with time. Thanks to clever marketing, diet trends come and go. 

The latest appears to target gluten -- a type of protein found in wheat (including varieties such as Kamut and spelt), barley, and rye. Indeed, the market for gluten-free food swelled to an estimated $1.56 billion in 2008.

Why would anyone willingly give up all wheat products? As with many diet fads, at the core lies a truth: Some people don't tolerate gluten, just like some are truly lactose-intolerant.

So how do you know if you should hop on the gluten-free bandwagon? That depends on how you're feeling. If your system doesn't react well to gluten, you may experience symptoms including bloating, discomfort, and diarrhea. No test currently exists for this kind of sensitivity; the only way to find out if gluten's the cause of your issues is to work with your doctor and try an elimination diet. Fortunately, a simple gluten intolerance doesn't cause damage to your body.

Celiac disease, an immune response associated with gluten consumption, is another story. With celiac disease, gluten damages the lining of the small intestines, interfering with nutrient absorption. For years, celiac disease remained off the radar for American doctors, who rarely considered the diagnosis. However, research shows that as much as one percent of the U.S. population, or about three million people, may suffer from it.

Symptoms of celiac disease range from abdominal pain and bloating to chronic fatigue. Sometimes no symptoms show up at all, and that's worrisome: Undiagnosed celiac disease can cause, among other problems, anemia, infertility, osteoporosis, or cancer. Blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine, though not foolproof, often help confirm a diagnosis.

Most people with celiac disease still don't know they have it because they haven't been tested. "Of the 1 percent who may have it, only 1 percent has been diagnosed," says Peter Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center. That leaves millions of people in the dark.

If you do have celiac disease, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. That means forgoing not only the obvious -- bread, pizza, pasta -- but also certain processed meats, jams, medications, even lipstick (gluten often figures in as a flavoring, stabilizing, and thickening agent).

Fortunately for those who have celiac disease, the increased offerings of gluten-free products make eating easier. "But don't forget, many foods are naturally gluten-free," says Green. These include fruits, vegetables, legumes, unprocessed meats, and dairy products. 

Try our Gluten-Free Sandwich Bread -- great for making sandwiches, bread crumbs, French toast, and croutons. For crutons, toss bread cubes with olive oil, season, and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

More Gluten-Free Recipes

Gluten-Free Guide
For recipes, tips, restaurants, and support, check out these gluten-focused resources.

Basic info and lists of foods you can eat or should avoid:

Grains and flours glossary:

Tips on adapting recipes:

Restaurants with gluten-free offerings:

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