Gluten, a group of proteins found in wheat, rye and barley, directly threatens the health of more than 2 million Americans who unknowingly suffer celiac, an autoimmune disease. Fact: If your body reacts to gluten and you keep eating foods containing gluten like bread, pizza and breakfast cereal, it can kill you.
Many people are confused by what gluten is and the problems it causes. A contributing factor to this conundrum: Medical researchers are still busy trying to clarify exactly how gluten does its damage in the human body. Scientists don’t completely understand why some people seem to react badly to gluten while others apparently tolerate it.
But here are some of the most common myths that people believe about gluten:
- Eating a gluten-free diet is a fad that will soon fade away. For people whose health suffers because of gluten, this diet is no fad; it is a necessity. Since there is no cure for gluten sensitivities, the only recourse is to avoid gluten permanently.
- Gluten sensitivities and celiac disease are problems that people develop as children. While researchers used to believe that celiac, the autoimmune reaction to gluten, was a problem that always appeared in younger people, they now know that you can develop a gluten problem at any age. As far as researchers know, you can be gluten-tolerant today and, for some unknown reason, wake up tomorrow with a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
- Sensitivities to gluten are allergic reactions. When you suffer a health problem like celiac, it is a disease, not an allergy. Allergies cause reactions to things like pollen, peanuts, dairy, eggs, etc. An allergic reaction is a direct immune response to an allergen. For instance, inhale pollen and you sneeze it out. In contrast, when you have celiac, your immune system is inflamed and the immune cells attack the body itself. In many cases of celiac, the immune system attacks the intestinal walls and destroys the sections that absorb nutrients. That can lead to anemia, osteoporosis and other diseases that result from nutrient malabsorption.
- If a food is wheat-free, it doesn’t contain gluten. Even though wheat may be the most common source of gluten in the American diet, it isn’t the only one. Foods containing barley (like malted milk and beer) are also rich in gluten. So is rye bread. And foods that should be naturally gluten-free may be cross-contaminated with gluten. For example, some packages of beans may note that they are processed in a plant that also handles wheat. In that case, there may be gluten present in the beans even though beans are a naturally gluten-free food. French fries at many fast food places may contain gluten from seasonings or be contaminated from frying oil that unintentionally contains gluten from other foods.
- Eating a gluten-free diet is very expensive. Eating gluten-free is pricey if you insist on eating gluten-free baked goods that substitute for normal bread, cookies, waffles, cakes and other processed foods. But if you stick to meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts, the diet should not be any more expensive than a conventional diet. However, eating out at restaurants that do not make allowances for preparing gluten-free items may be problematic. Many restaurant workers don’t understand how to make sure dishes are gluten-free and not cross-contaminated.
- Only a small number of people suffer from celiac disease. Experts estimate that about 1 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease. Those same experts note that at least 2 million of these people don’t know that gluten is the source of their health problems. If you are one of these people and you unwittingly keep eating foods containing gluten, you quadruple your risk of dying this year. In addition, research shows that the number of people with celiac seems to be doubling every 15 years. Nobody knows why.
- When gluten causes a health problem, it is a digestive problem. Gluten has been connected to 300 different symptoms including depression, headaches, ataxia (difficulties controlling muscle movement), brain fog, arthritis, thyroid malfunction, skin rashes, etc. In my case, gluten caused my immune system to attack my brain and nerves. I suffered Alzheimer’s-like symptoms until I gave up gluten.
- Going gluten-free is an easy way to lose weight. If you eat gluten-free baked goods and indulge in sugary soft drinks, juices and other beverages rich in sweeteners, you probably won’t lose weight on a gluten-free diet. But if you stick to meats, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts and go easy on the sugar, you may find it a relatively painless method for taking off pounds. Plus, if gluten is fomenting inflammation in your body that causes you to retain fluid, giving up gluten may help you lose weight. When I gave up eating gluten, I initially lost five pounds in the first three days on a gluten-free diet.
- If you don’t have celiac or an apparent sensitivity to gluten, you can digest gluten just fine. Despite the fact that you may seem to tolerate gluten, you can’t digest it. Nobody can. Even under the best of circumstances, gluten passes through you without incident. But you derive no nutritional benefit from gluten.
- If you’re gluten-sensitive, you can still eat some bread or other food containing gluten once in a while as a treat. Gluten difficulties are diseases. If you react to gluten, there is no such thing as a safe level of gluten exposure. Giving gluten up entirely is the only safe course of action.
Millions of Americans suffer from celiac and gluten sensitivities, and these are health menaces that continue to grow. Researchers continue to puzzle over how gluten causes its physiological destruction, but there is no puzzle over how to treat a gluten problem: Eat a gluten-free diet.
About the Author: Carl Lowe has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.