Gluten-free foods seem to be everywhere these days. Restaurants and cafes regularly feature gluten-free dishes and pastries. Supermarkets offer gluten-free bread, rolls, and crackers.
Many people are reducing or eliminating their dietary intake of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. But only those who have celiac disease need to completely stop eating gluten. Celiac disease is a condition in which the immune system is abnormally sensitive to gluten. Others who have a gluten sensitivity may simply feel better if they eat much less of it.
In people with celiac disease, gluten can damage the digestive tract. In particular, it harms the small intestine’s villi. These are small, fingerlike projections that absorb nutrients from food. If the villi are damaged, the body cannot absorb enough nutrients. You may begin to feel abdominal pain, indigestion, bloating, and other unpleasant symptoms. Left untreated, the disease can trigger conditions that are more serious.
Doctors diagnose the need for a gluten-free diet based partly on symptoms that keep coming back. These can include:
Joint pain and inflammation
Digestive problems, including abdominal pain and bloating
Indigestion and acid reflux
Constipation or diarrhea
Anxiety, mood swings, or depression
Skin rashes and itching
Tingling in the hands and feet
For anyone with celiac disease, eating gluten can damage the small intestine and other tissues and organs. This can make it hard for the body to absorb nutrients. Some people without celiac disease also have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten.
Diet is the main way to treat gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity. A big part of a gluten-free diet is to avoid foods made with wheat, rye, or barley. This means most regular breads, pizza, cereals, pastas, cakes, and cookies. Also, many processed foods contain hidden gluten. The most common culprits are soy sauce, gravies, canned soups, nutritional bars, barley malt, and veggie burgers.
But even products like lipstick and medications can contain gluten. If you have celiac disease, you’ll need to become an expert at reading food and product labels. This is a skill that your health provider or a gluten-free support group can help with.
Be careful when replacing gluten foods with foods that are gluten-free. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that packaged gluten-free foods aren’t necessarily better or healthier. In fact, some gluten-free foods are higher in fat, sugar, and total calories than foods with gluten. As with any diet, the variety of nutritious foods in your gluten-free diet will determine how healthy it is.
If you are living with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, you’ll need to avoid foods and products containing gluten. At the same time, you’ll need to work with your health providers to make sure that you're getting enough vitamins and minerals. Your doctor can let you know if you need to take a supplement to replace any missing nutrients. Be aware that some supplements are made with ingredients that contain gluten, so be sure to choose supplements carefully. The NIH provides a list of foods and other products containing gluten.
After you start on your gluten-free diet, your small intestine will start to repair the damage to its villi. After a while, your body will begin absorbing food normally again. Your digestive symptoms will begin to disappear. You also should start to feel much better overall.
If you don't notice enough improvement, it's usually because small amounts of gluten remain in your diet. Also, other conditions can interfere with a gluten-free diet. These include irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, and bacterial overgrowth in the intestine. Check in with your doctor regularly to check on your condition. Call your doctor right away if you continue to have symptoms or side effects once you’re on a gluten-free diet.