Food Matters: Gluten-free diet gives Celiacs relief from sensitivities to grain proteins

By Chuck NewcombMay 4, 2012 

Maybe one day we will know for sure why some people seem to have improvements in health when they give up eating wheat and other foods that contain gluten.

I have had an elderly woman tell me repeatedly that she feels young and alive again after she totally stopped eating all gluten products. Actually, she said she feels like she is in her 20s. That is pretty remarkable.

There is still no clear evidence that gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, has any particular health risks beyond the very serious problem of Celiac disease.

Only about 1 percent of the population has Celiac disease, but the incidence is on the rise with rates doubling about every 20 years. Also known as Celiac sprue, the disease involves an allergic reaction to gluten that can occur in a couple of minutes to hours after consuming wheat. Symptoms can be mild or severe and usually include congestion, skin reaction and bloating.

Both Celiac disease and gluten intolerance or sensitivity can be intensified by emotional stress, infection, surgery and pregnancy. There are some simple tests that can confirm Celiac disease, but there is no reliable test for gluten sensitivity. The intestine remains normal in appearance, so even a biopsy is not useful.

Those that are gluten-sensitive may account for roughly 10 percent of the general population. A study reported in Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggested that gluten can cause an inflammation of the central nervous system. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, depression and joint pain.

There are a lot of things that can cause the same symptoms, so how can anyone tell if they have a problem with gluten?

One way to tell if someone might have a problem with gluten is to try eating foods that do not contain any wheat, barley and rye. It may only take a few days or a week to see if there is any real difference.

Anyone who suspects they have Celiac sprue would need to see a doctor and have tests done before they try giving up gluten. Otherwise, the tests would not be accurate.

Warning: Eating gluten-free can cause deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients. Gluten-containing products like breads, cereals and grains are often fortified with these nutrients, but many gluten-free products are not fortified. They are also typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium.

Some easy substitutions can include foods we frequently use anyway like corn tortillas, rice and potatoes.

Other items that can be used include buckwheat, corn, flax, amaranth, millet, quinoa and teff.

Buckwheat pancakes (or waffles) with blueberries and honey make a delicious breakfast. Perhaps try some gluten-free toast, muffins and bagels with butter, jam or honey.

It would be helpful to learn to bake gluten-free bread at home. There are some peculiar things about gluten-free products that make them more difficult to bake with or cook, so following recipes and going through some experimentation can be helpful. Some common alternatives are tapioca flour, soy flour, rice flour, potato starch flour, cornstarch and cornmeal.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a masters of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. Email questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.

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