Nowadays we see the “gluten-free” label on everything from snack foods to meats and produce—which can be a little confusing if you don’t know exactly what gluten is or whether or not you should be eating it. In fact, a recent study found that many people have switched to a gluten-free diet simply because they think it’s healthier or better for a balanced digestive system, but actually the opposite may be true. More about that later on in this blog, but first let’s start with the basics.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a general term for a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and some cross-variations of the three. That said, you’re likely to find gluten in things like breads, baked goods, crackers, pasta and cereal. Other places gluten may be hiding are in soups, sauces, salad dressings, beer and food or beverages made with malt.
How does gluten impact digestion?
People who do not have a gluten allergy are able to digest gluten without any issues. However, those who are allergic to gluten often experience a broad range of symptoms that are not limited to digestive discomfort. These symptoms differ by age, but they are often helpful in determining if an individual is suffering from celiac disease.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease, sometimes called gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is an autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten. When people with celiac disease ingest gluten it causes damage to the small intestine, specifically the microscopic villi that line the intestinal wall and play an important role in nutrient absorption. Celiac disease is hereditary and affects about one in every 133 Americans, or roughly one percent of the population. There is also a condition called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” in which people have similar symptoms but for some reason do not test positive for celiac disease.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Based on your (or your child’s) symptoms, your doctor will typically start with a variety of blood tests. If those tests indicate celiac disease may be present, he or she may schedule additional tests. For people with a known history of celiac in the family, screenings are recommended as a preventative measure.
Some signs and symptoms of celiac disease
It is important to understand that symptoms of celiac disease typically differ from children to adults, and that children are more likely to experience symptoms of digestive discomfort. Among children and adolescents, symptoms may include:
- failure to thrive (in infants)
- stomach pain
- gas and bloating
- chronic diarrhea
- foul-smelling stool
- nausea and vomiting
- delayed puberty
- changes in mood and behavior
- neurological symptoms, including ADHD
- poor appetite
- weight loss
- stunted growth
Symptoms of digestive discomfort are less common among adults. Though they may occur, adult symptoms of celiac disease are more likely to include:
- skin rash
- mouth ulcers (canker sores)
- depression and anxiety
- joint pain
- fertility problems
- missed menstrual periods
- numbness/tingling in hands and feet
- acid reflux and heartburn
What is the best treatment for celiac disease?
Because celiac disease is a lifelong condition that can affect other parts of your body if not properly managed, it is important to take steps to preserve your health if you think you may have a gluten allergy. Once you have been tested and diagnosed with celiac disease, the most effective treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet.
What can I eat if I have celiac disease?
Not to worry—having celiac doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of eating salad. On the contrary, there are plenty of healthy options for people with celiac disease. Like any healthy diet, the gluten-free food list includes fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, beans, legumes and nuts. Because gluten is most often found in grain-based food items, the challenge often comes with avoiding breads, pasta and similar foods. However, some healthful and delicious grain options exist (and are often found in gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, etc.) to bring a little variety to your diet. They include:
- kasha (buckwheat groats)
- gluten-free oats
- rice flour, tapioca flour and nut flours
When to consult your doctor
It is important to let your doctor know if you think you have a gluten allergy. For children, if digestive symptoms last longer than two weeks, consult a doctor. Likewise, Mayo Clinic experts recommend consulting a doctor if “your child is pale, irritable or failing to grow or has a potbelly and foul-smelling, bulky stools.” They also caution against eliminating gluten before you see your doctor, as this can alter test results when screening for celiac disease.
Why you should ALWAYS talk to your doctor before going gluten free
Despite a recent increase in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease, many people are giving up gluten and even putting their kids on gluten-free diets simply because they think it is a healthier choice. This has a lot of experts worried, because eliminating gluten from the diet without the recommendation of a physician may be doing more harm than good—especially when it comes to children.
Based on a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center believe starting healthy children on a gluten-free diet may actually increase their risk of developing other health problems later in life—from malnutrition and growth problems (due to a lack of essential vitamins and nutrients from the missing food group) to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes in adulthood (owing to the higher fat and sugar content in gluten-free food products).
“Parents should be counseled as to the possible financial, social and nutritional consequences of unnecessary implementation of a gluten-free diet,” said study author Dr. Norelle R. Reilly. She and her team surveyed 1,500 people on gluten-free diets and discovered that less than 8 percent of those surveyed had celiac disease. As for the rest, they believed it would improve digestion, was healthier overall, or they simply had no reason for going gluten free.
A daily regimen for digestive health
Good digestive health has a lot to do with giving our bodies the right “tools” to break down the foods we eat and help us maintain a healthy and well-balanced gut. Fiber, Omega-3 fats, probiotics and digestive enzymes are among the most important tools recommended for optimal digestion. Here is a quick introduction to each:
- Fiber: Studies show that people who eat at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day are less likely to experience occasional constipation and other digestive issues. A high-fiber diet has also been linked to healthy weight management and heart health. Sources include fruit, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fiber supplements.
- Omega-3: Beneficial Omega-3 fats such as EPA and DHA help nourish and support the cells of the colon to promote optimal digestive health, and research also links these good-for-you fats to a healthy heart, brain, skin and joints. Sources include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines; some leafy green vegetables; and fish oil supplements.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are the friendly bacteria in your digestive tract that work to support a balanced internal environment and promote good digestion and immune health. Sources include fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, tofu, tempeh, miso and fermented vegetables, along with a daily probiotic supplement such as Renew Life® Ultimate Flora™ probiotics.
- Digestive Enzymes. Digestive enzymes are found in raw foods and help the body digest food and absorb needed nutrients. In doing so, they also help prevent occasional gas, bloating and indigestion. Plant-based enzyme formulas are effective over a broader range of pH levels in the body. Sources include raw whole foods and digestive enzyme supplements.
Listen to your body to live healthier
Although more common today than in the past, it is still only a small percentage of Americans who suffer from celiac disease. If you think you or your child may be gluten intolerant, talk to your doctor to see what your next steps should be. Finally, pay close attention to your body and how it reacts to the different foods you eat. This can help you make the best choices for your health and avoid occasional digestive discomfort.