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What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and numerous other foods and additives that contain or are made from these ingredients. Gluten can also be found in many non-food items, such as medicines, lipstick, and stamp adhesives.
Why Should I Follow a Gluten-Free Diet?
If you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease, your body is unable to digest gluten. Consuming gluten may result in symptoms such as cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. The only treatment is to eliminate gluten from your diet. Following a gluten-free diet can reverse any intestinal damage and nutrient deficiencies that may have occurred as a result of consuming gluten.
People who do not have celiac disease and are not officially gluten intolerant still might benefit from reducing or eliminating gluten-containing foods in their diet. Many people who do this report positive outcomes such as a general sense of enhanced well-being, clearer thinking, and better energy levels.
Gluten-Free Diet Basics
On a gluten-free diet, gluten is completely avoided, as any amount of gluten can cause damage to the small intestine of someone with gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease. Learning how to eat gluten-free can be challenging, since gluten is found in many common foods, such as cereals, breads, and pasta. The Gluten Free Food Pyramid is a good guide for balancing the diet without these food groups.
Gluten is often found in unsuspecting foods, such as frozen yogurt, soy sauce, and beer. Fortunately, there are many gluten-free alternatives, making it possible—with a little practice and help from a nutritionist or registered dietitian—to still eat a well-balanced, satisfying diet. Some people also find online resources and support groups helpful.
Foods to Avoid
To follow a gluten-free diet, you must avoid all foods containing:
- Oats (in most cases)
Note: This list includes most bread, pasta, cereal, and processed foods. Special gluten-free breads and pastas are available. They are made with potato, rice, soy, or bean flour. Doctors are still uncertain as to whether people with Celiac Disease must avoid all foods containing oats.
Many people with gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease also become lactose intolerant. If you are lactose intolerant, you may also need to avoid milk products. The good news is that, in some people, lactose intolerance resolves after following a gluten-free diet.
Managing the Diet
Maintaining a gluten-free diet requires a lot of vigilance since gluten is included in many unexpected foods and beverages. When buying processed and packaged foods, carefully read all labels. If you are unsure if a food contains gluten, don’t eat it until you find out definitively. Calling the manufacturer of the food can sometimes be helpful in this regard.
A short (but by no means exhaustive) list of other foods that contain gluten include:
- Flavored coffee
- Tuna in vegetable broth
- Packaged rice mixes
- Some frozen potatoes
- Creamed vegetables
- Commercially prepared vegetables, salads, and salad dressings
- Some ice cream
Ordering at restaurants can also be challenging since many foods on the menu may contain gluten. Rather than shying away from eating at restaurants, however, call ahead and see if you can get details on what ingredients they use in their foods. Many restaurants will be cooperative in this regard.
Shopping for Gluten-Free Foods
Due to an increased awareness of gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease, there are an increasing number of gluten-free foods available in mainstream grocery stores and health food stores. When shopping for foods, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the available food products and figuring out which are gluten-free. It helps to begin with loading up on fresh foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as fruits and vegetables, milk, unprocessed cheese, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, and tofu. Then, add gluten-free sources of grain, such as rice, corn tortillas, and grits. These foods should be the staple of your diet. You can then supplement with snack foods, sweets, condiments, and special gluten-free items.
When choosing food products, be sure to read the labels carefully. In the US and Canada, food manufacturers must list whether a product has any of the most common allergens, including wheat.Read more about:
Celiac disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/ . Accessed January 3, 2010.
The gluten-free diet. Canadian Celiac Association website. Available at: http://www.celiac.ca/EnglishCCA/egfdiet2.html#allowed . Accessed January 3, 2010.
Gluten-free diet guide for families. Children’s Digestive Health and Disease Foundation website. Available at: http://www.cdhnf.o... . Accessed January 3, 2010.
Raymond N, Heap J, Case S. The gluten-free diet: an update for health professionals. University of Virginia Health System website. Available at: http://www.healths... . Published September 2006. Accessed January 3, 2010.