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home : health : health May 29, 2016

3/18/2014 12:54:00 PM
Is gluten-free for me?
By Marlys Underwood

The term gluten-free is showing up everywhere, from restaurant menus to food packaging labels and beer. What does it really mean - and what does it mean to you?

Gluten is made up of proteins found in some cereal grains. These proteins' primary role is to act as a food source for a germinating seed. (Not all seeds are grains, but all grains are seeds. The term grain is used to distinguish the botanically different seeds from grass-type plants. Think wheat, rye, barley, corn, rice.) When used in food products, the gluten in grains is what gives dough its elasticity or that chewiness we love in baked goods.

These proteins are what some folks have a sensitivity to - or a complete intolerance, which is known as celiac disease. Both of these negatively affect the body. The less-severe gluten sensitivity causes digestive tract inflammation and often includes symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, headaches, lethargy, hyper-activity, and/or general weakness.

Celiac disease is a very serious condition where the body's response to gluten causes the immune system to attack those little hairs (villi) in the lining of the small intestine. If you recall from high school biology class the small intestine does the majority of the work in terms of food digestion and nutrient assimilation. These little hairs are crucial to basic health. If you can't absorb the nutrients you consume, malnutrition results, which then contributes to all sorts of other issues and diseases. According to, actual celiac disease only affects about one percent of the population, though more and more people seem to be developing gluten sensitivities.

Specific grains known to cause symptoms include wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten-free grains include brown rice, cornmeal, and buckwheat. Oats are technically gluten-free, but are often processed in the same facilities as wheat, resulting in cross-contamination, thus resulting in inflammation and that bloated feeling.

What does all this mean for you? It means that if you are experiencing any of the gluten sensitivity symptoms, you might try cutting out the grain products listed above for a couple weeks and see if you start to feel better. You don't need a slew of special tests; however, if your symptoms are severe, please see your doctor and try to rule out celiac.

If your symptoms do not improve, it may be a separate food allergy entirely. Make sure you read those labels. Look for the words "gluten-free" and search for hidden forms of gluten, particularly in processed foods.

Keep in mind that many of our cereal grains and grain-based products are down to single species, perhaps genetically modified (another hot topic for another time), stripped of their bran and germ, and smothered in who knows what kind of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Perhaps it is these additions or subtractions, or lack of diversity that are causing your sensitivity.

You might first try switching to whole-grain and organic versions of breads and pastas. If that doesn't help, look into sprouted grain products. Remember that germination process uses up most of those proteins, making them easier for most people to digest.

There is also a world full of amazingly tasty, naturally gluten-free seeds out there. Get brave and try something new. Experiment with all those alternative flours you've been seeing. You just might discover a new favorite, and feel better to boot.

Marlys Underwood is a certified health coach.

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