Gluten – It’s Not Just The Bread – 2

There are three (possibly more) illnesses caused by gluten – celiac disease, gluten allergy and gluten sensitivity.

There are no medicines or pills to take. Whether it is celiac disease, allergy or gluten sensitivity, the only effective approach is to totally avoid gluten. This is relatively easy to do at home but it can be more complex eating out. Gluten is obviously in products made from wheat flour like bread, pasta, pizza, pretzels, pies and cakes. At home it means getting rid of the obvious – white or whole wheat flour, pancake mix, cake and cookie mixes and many cereals like Wheaties. More difficult to recognize are pantry items that have gluten lurking in them that might surprise you. Cheerios and Corn Flakes include wheat flour. Soy sauce usually is made of both soy and wheat although wheat-free soy sauce is available.  Worcestershire sauce is a problematic item; some brands are gluten-free while others are not. Malt vinegar is made from barley and so is not gluten-free; white vinegar may be not be gluten free whereas balsamic and apple cider vinegar are usually safe. Beer is brewed from wheat and barley. Hard liquors are often made from wheat but are distilled and so are generally gluten free.  Seasonings can be a complex problem; some seasonings may use wheat to stabilize the spice or herbs in it.

Basically, it is a process of reading the labels carefully. Food package labeling has improved immensely in recent years and can be a real blessing in the grocery store. The ingredients label must note if it contains wheat.
If you follow the basic very healthy Mediterranean style diet you can reasonably easily remain gluten free. The Mediterranean diet is fundamentally one based on a fresh vegetables, simply cooked, multiple fruits, legumes such as beans and lentils and modest size quantities of meat, poultry or fish plus olive oil along with nuts and seeds and wine in moderation.

It’s easy to prepare food from scratch but in our society we don’t tend to do that anymore. Most foods come processed and pre-packaged; often those forms are adulterated with substances that include gluten. That’s why the label reading is very important. But far better to start with fresh ingredients from the produce, meat and fish sections and prepare them in a way that doesn’t use gluten.

Eating in a restaurant is more of a challenge. There you’re not in control of the ingredients used. As for everyone, ordering meals based on fresh prepared vegetables and fruits along with high quality meats, poultry and fish is best. Then the question is whether the chef used any added gluten-containing ingredient such as in the seasoning or marinade. Gravies are often thickened with flour as are many soups.  Eggs of course are gluten-free so you might expect that an omelet will be gluten-free even if you add veggies such as spinach, tomatoes and perhaps some cheese. But it may not be. Why? It’s because some of the commercial prepackaged omelet mixes include a bit of pancake batter to make the omelet a bit smoother and fluffier. Something you would probably never guess. But if you are gluten sensitive, your GI tract will figure it out a short while later with disturbing symptoms.

Even a restaurant meal free of gluten might have been prepared next to a gluten containing meal leading to cross contamination.  So it is critical that the restaurant know your requirements and be prepared to assist.

The food industry has jumped on the gluten free bandwagon in a major way. They see market potential. It is now a multi-billion dollar per year market and growing. Why so much? Many people have started to go gluten free even though they are not sensitive nor have celiac disease. They believe that they do or will feel better by avoiding gluten. Of course this means that there are more and more gluten free products on the grocery shelves now for those that must be gluten free. Unfortunately, the food manufacturers that have produced so much gluten free food are not necessarily manufacturing healthy foods. A food product may be gluten free but processed to contain high levels of salt, fat and sugar – hardly healthy. Once again, read the label, this time for the calorie count, the fat content, the added salt and sugar.
Here is the bottom line. For a sizable portion of the population, gluten is a toxic substance. Celiac disease is very serious. Gluten allergy although uncommon can be devastating. Gluten sensitivity, while not life threatening, can be very life altering in a most negative way. Unfortunately because the symptoms of celiac or sensitivity are not necessarily GI related, the diagnosis is often elusive. For those with gluten-related disease the only treatment is preventative – completely avoid gluten. 

What should you do? If you are gluten sensitive, then you need to avoid gluten. If you have celiac disease this is especially important, indeed critical. If you are gluten sensitive you’ll be most uncomfortable if you eat anything containing gluten.  The degree of discomfort and the length of the discomfort will probably depend upon how much you eat at any given time. So the key is to avoid it. But before you try to diagnose and treat yourself, talk to your doctor; that is essential. Your problem may or may not be gluten; it’s too important to leave to chance.

Stephen Schimpff, MD, MACP

Award winning author

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