How many people do you know on a gluten-free diet? Are we all confused about what this means? Did you know wheat is now one of the top 8 food allergies? Why is wheat intolerance 4-times more common today than it was in 1950? There is a simple answer to that last question.
If you know someone impacted by this, keep reading. If you have abdominal issues, keep reading. If you’re curious, keep reading. We are going to break it down into the simplest terms, without all the very significant details that really muck it up. Those should be saved for people with a gluten intolerance, to discover and discuss with their doctors. My goal here, is not to diagnose, but to help clarify for everyone, since it’s surrounding us.
What is gluten? The simplified definition: gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. When you hear of a gluten-free diet, it means avoiding all of the obvious things, plus a giant list of foods that you would NEVER suspect, including: some fried foods, lunch meats, salad dressings, soy sauce and a ton more.
What does wheat intolerant, celiac and wheat allergy mean? There are 3-types of sufferers when it comes to gluten.
~Celiac Disease, aka celiac have an abnormal immune system response, in the small intestine, to gluten. The response is contained. The reaction is an inflamed digestive track, that damages the lining, to the point of interfering with the absorption of nutrients from foods. That is why it’s dangerous for some people and may cause anything from lethargy to the most severe symptom, malnutrition. This disease is never cured and it does impact life expectancy by a significant amount, if left untreated. The only treatment is total gluten avoidance. Diagnosis takes an average of 4-years and is confirmed through biopsy of the stomach lining and blood testing, usually after a whole range of other tests, since the symptoms are so commonly confused with other conditions.
~Allergy to wheat is the rarest form of gluten intolerance. The reactions to consuming wheat can range anywhere from stomach upset to anaphylaxis, depending on the severity. The response is not contained and the symptoms are more clear-cut than celiac and is more likely be confused with another food allergy, instead. However, those of us without a wheat allergy often confuse it with Celiac Disease and use the terms interchangeably, although they are very different. This allergy is just like any other allergy and can be diagnosed with a skin prick.
~Wheat intolerance is the mildest form of the condition and also the most common, estimated to affect 1 in 133 of us. It is the hardest to diagnose, primarily because it cannot be confirmed through any blood testing or skin pricking. It takes an average of 4-years to confirm wheat intolerance, by ruling out every other digestive condition (gastrointestinal and colon probing, et al), including celiac. The primary diagnostic tool is a very detailed food diary. The diary leads to abruptly cutting wheat out of the diet to see if symptoms improve. Symptoms range wildly from mild stomach pain, bloat and cramping, to headaches, depression and bloody stool. Which is, yet another reason, it’s so hard to diagnose. Two people can have very different symptoms and the same intolerance of wheat. Those intolerant, can sometimes re-introduce wheat back into their diets, with some success after a period of gluten-free. Treatment is monitoring your diet to gauge the severity and eating accordingly.
Why is everyone around us suffering from this condition, suddenly? The simplest answer to this question is the dramatic change in the American diet. The food we eat today is very different from what people ate in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, when gluten intolerance (of any variety) was very rare. We can also attribute hybridization, which increased the protein in wheat. Our high-gluten, refined grain is different than our ancestors consumed. There is also the speculation of the same reason we think there are more nut allergies now. We’ve created this environment, where we’ve all but annihilated many diseases (think Polio and Mumps) and we’ve introduced antibiotics to fend off bacteria and now our bodies have nothing to fight, but themselves. So, we have more cases. And we come up with ways to deal with them and sometimes those ways will produce consequences down the road. Maybe our legacy will be the end of grain consumption by humans. Who knows.
Should we avoid wheat anyway? This is a very complex question that I’m going to provide an “opinion” on. There was a huge movement not long ago that was no-carb. Remember? The problem with that movement, was that it was no-carb vs. no-bad-carb. The “bad” carbs, like white bread, white rice, potatoes, etc… convert to sugars in our blood stream. The good carbs, like fruits, vegetables and slow burn carbs, such as, brown rice and whole grain oatmeal, turn to energy and fuel. Eliminating an entire food group is never a good idea, unless it’s necessary.
It’s very tough to find a whole-grain wheat, preservative-free, healthy bread, which is why I left it out of the list in the previous paragraph, of good carbs. America is on a whole-grain wheat kick and it is very murky. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll tell you the few I’m comfortable feeding my kids (I refrain from bread all together because I’m one of the lucky wheat intolerant).
So, back to answering the question, I believe we should eat, what the earth intended, which does includes wheat. Unless you have a sensitivity, you are safe to consume, but be diligent (for your own benefit) about inspection of the product and make certain you are eating 100% whole-grain wheat with minimal processing. The ingredient list should be short and consist of things you recognize. I also advise limiting the amount of processed foods you eat, all together, so eating a lot of wheat shouldn’t be a huge problem, anyway.
Of course, if you’re having any of the known symptoms to gluten intolerance, look here for the most common, please see your doctor and discuss the possibilities. Like I stated earlier, the diagnostic process is pretty long and arduous and often, expensive, but It is not advised by professionals to self-diagnose. If you’re tempted to test your theory at home before seeing your doctor, read up on it first, because gluten can lurk in crazy places! And remember, the only relief a celiac will get is from removing gluten entirely from the diet. That’s why it’s important to see a health care specialist and even a dietician.