What is gluten and should we be eating it?One of the hottest diet trends lately is eating gluten-free. As more people discover they have a gluten allergy they are adjusting their diet accordingly. What exactly is gluten and are gluten-free products more nutritious? The answers may be surprising.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley and rye. It is what gives products such as pasta, bread, muffins, and cakes elasticity. People who have an allergy to gluten have trouble digesting this protein and their body begins producing antibodies attacking this ‘foreign’ protein. The symptoms are long and vary from person to person, but can include constipation, bloating, brain fog, insomnia, headaches, eczema, etc.

My husband and I started a gluten-free diet in February. I suspect gluten is the cause of the annoying itchy, red rash my husband gets behind his ears, hence the gluten elimination test (I am doing it mostly to support him as I know how gluten affects me!). While the rash has dramatically improved, the more astonishing benefit has been his seasonal, extremely loud cough has disappeared. Since his body’s immune system isn’t on overdrive fighting the inflammation caused by the gluten, it is able to defend itself against the seasonal allergies. He was about to try an over-the-counter allergy medicine to combat the cough but is relieved he does not have to now. Needless to say, he is a true believer!

As a nutritionist I have discovered that the best way to detect a food sensitivity is an elimination test. Not only is it cheaper than a blood test but it is usually more accurate. After eliminating the suspected food for a certain period of time (I always recommend between 2-4 weeks) and then reintroducing it, symptoms usually are quite apparent and hard to ignore (unlike if you were eating gluten every day and used to feeling the symptoms every day).

About five years ago I did a gluten elimination diet for 2 months. On the day of re-introduction I was passed out in a coma-like stance on my couch all afternoon. It was pretty apparent that gluten zaps my energy and I am sensitive to it, but I do not have a gluten allergy; thus, I avoid it in my own home. I instead eat gluten free crackers, breads, and grains, and do my best to minimize eating gluten at restaurants.

The most important aspect of a successful gluten-free food plan is preparation. If you know you will be dining out at a restaurant, look ahead at the menu online. Just because crackers or bread is served with a cheese plate or soup it doesn’t mean you can’t order it. I often bring my own gluten-free crackers (LOVE the brand Mary’s Gone Crackers) which automatically increases my food options.

Gluten sensitivity can range from intolerance to a life-threatening allergy. While some people with a gluten allergy may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten occasionally, people with celiac disease must always avoid it. Celiac disease is the most serious form of a gluten allergy. Even just small amounts of gluten can wreak havoc on their health. The small intestine is so damaged that it has led to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals.

More recently, gluten-free (as well as dairy-free) diets have become highly recommended and an important part of the treatment of children with behavioral issues, such as Autism or ADHD. Why would removing these foods improve the behavior in these children? Compelling research shows the brain-gut connection and how the proteins in dairy and/or gluten can cause inflammation in the body which effects brain chemistry. I always recommend that a parent experiment with removing these foods (I know easier said than done) to see if their child’s behavior improves.

It is not true that ALL grains must be avoided. If you have a gluten allergy you can still consume rice, corn, quinoa and amaranth, just to name a few. While it can be challenging eating gluten-free, it is not impossible. You will still be able to enjoy cereals, breads, pastas and even muffins, cookies and cakes. There are many great gluten-free versions of these products in your local health food store. Or better yet, focus on the delicious gluten-free grains you can have along with other healthy whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins— you will never miss the gluten! While it may seem overwhelming at first, in no time you will get the hang of what you should and should not avoid.


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