What is gluten and why are so many people going gluten free?


People give up gluten for multiple reasons. Sometimes they are motivated by a medical diagnosis, or just a desire to eat more healthfully.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, oats, barley and rye. Primarily gluten comes from wheat, which finds its way into most commercially produced food. Wheat contamination plays a large role in gluten’s widespread influence. For example, oats do not inherently contain gluten, but they are processed on equipment that also processes wheat.

Therefore, you can purchase special oats which are gluten free, but you would have to avoid most restaurant prepared oatmeal.

Wheat is frequently used as a thickener, filler and food additive. For example, any food you find which says “natural flavors” may or may not have gluten in it.

Other ingredients which sneak gluten into your food include “spices,” “starch,” and “malt.” Many more food ingredients are questionable than can be listed in the scope of this article. If you are serious about going on a gluten free diet, you need to do thorough research. Remember, anything you ingest or taste must be examined for gluten. Prescription drugs, mints, chewing gum, toothpaste, lip balm and make-up must all be examined for gluten.

Problems Caused By Gluten: Wheat Allergy, Food Intolerance and Celiac Disease

A wheat allergy is like any other allergy. Your body reacts to the wheat as though it were a harmful substance, producing symptoms such as skin problems, swelling and closed off airways. Even a small amount of wheat can produce an allergic reaction.

A wheat allergy should not be confused with a food intolerance. A food intolerance does not trigger an allergic response, but can cause unpleasant symptoms or bodily sensations. If you think you may be allergic to wheat, schedule an appointment for testing with an allergist. If you are not allergic to wheat but feel healthier when you don’t eat gluten, then by all means avoid it.

The other major reason to avoid gluten is Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. When someone with Celiac consumes gluten, their body responds by attacking the small intestines where it is being digested. For this reason, gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and nausea are common in Celiacs.

However, the range of symptoms for Celiac disease is vast. The small intestines are where the body absorbs most of its nutrients and does much of its digestion. Your body needs nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to perform all of its processes. So if your small intestines aren’t working, virtually any process or function in your body can be compromised. For example, if you are unable to absorb vitamin A, this could affect your eyesight. The difficulty of linking such a wide variety of symptoms to a specific problem is why diagnosing Celiac is difficult.

CommonSymptoms of Celiac

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • depression
  • irritability
  • joint pain
  • muscle cramps
  • tingling in legs and feet
  • mouth sores
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • osteoporosis

How to Diagnose Celiac

Two medical tests for Celiac are available. The first, a blood test, can be useful but frequently gives a false negative. In order to test positive on the blood test, the patient must have eaten significant quantities of gluten for at least a month.

If you don’t normally eat a lot of bread and wheat products, you may get a false negative. The unpleasant digestive symptoms of Celiac can cause patients to eat less food, or eat foods they do not normally eat. If the patient is already trying to cut down on wheat, they may not have enough in their system to test positive.

The second way to test for gluten is to have an endoscopy where a doctor takes samples of the intestinal tract. If the samples show flattened or dead cilia in the intestines, this indicates Celiac. The test can be expensive, depending on your insurance, and certainly sounds unpleasant. However, it can help diagnose Celiac and keep track of recovery after diagnosis.

Another method, which is free but not easy, is to cut gluten out of your diet and see how you feel. Keeping a food journal of what you eat and what symptoms you experience is helpful when using this method. Journaling uncovers problem foods and can identify other foods which trigger your symptoms. If you decide to go it alone, remember that it takes time to recover from Celiac. It can take months or longer before your body feels back to normal. Consult a physician if you have any medical concerns.


  • Korn, Dana. Living Gluten Free For Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2006.
  • MayoClinic.com. Celiac Disease. (Accessed January 16, 2011).


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