What is Gluten?
Gluten is something many people don’t worry about, but for those who must follow a diet without it, avoiding it is top priority. Here’s what you need to know to understand exactly which foods to avoid.
Technically, gluten is the general name for specific proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Most people can eat gluten with no ill effects, but gluten is toxic for several million others.
Who needs to go gluten free?
A gluten-free diet is required for individuals diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies and is sometimes recommended for children with autism. Celiac disease is a digestive disorder in which gluten damages the lining of the small intestine and reduces its ability to absorb vital nutrients. It is an autoimmune condition rather than a food allergy because gluten-containing food actually causes damage to the lining of the small intestine. This damage increases the risk of malnutrition because the small intestine can’t effectively absorb nutrients. Common symptoms include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, weight loss, nausea, vitamin deficiencies, and severe abdominal pain, but gluten can also cause further damage and additional symptoms in other areas of the body. The range and severity of symptoms varies greatly among individuals, and the level of gluten in certain foods affects each person differently. The only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. Persons with gluten sensitivity can exhibit a wide range of reactions, from digestive issues to headaches, balance problems, and many other difficulties. And these symptoms may range from mild to severe. The only treatment for gluten sensitivity is avoidance of gluten. Individuals with allergies must avoid wheat proteins, which include gluten. Symptoms can include hives, nasal congestion, nausea, and anaphylaxis. The only treatment is avoidance of wheat products. Some physicians prescribe a diet free of gluten and casein (a milk protein) to improve behavior in children with autism. Not all autistic children respond to a gluten-free/casein-free diet (known as a GFCF diet), and it is typically used as a part of the overall treatment.
Many people who cannot eat gluten also experience lactose intolerance—gluten-induced damage to the intestines can decrease the ability to digest lactose. For the recipes in our gluten-free collection containing dairy products, you can make ingredient substitutions using dairy-free plain yogurts and cheeses, dairy-free buttery spreads in place of butter, and dairy-free beverages such as plain rice, soy, coconut, or hemp milk in place of cow’s milk. Please note that these products often have different textures and flavors compared to their dairy-containing counterparts, so you may need to experiment with the recipes to get the results you like.
What to do now
Gluten is everywhere and shows up in some unexpected places, including many prepackaged and processed foods, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a big plate of pasta or a slice of pizza ever again. Browse our "Gluten-Free Guide" and gluten-free recipe collections for tips on how to stock a gluten-free pantry; identify unexpected sources of gluten; determine which foods are safe to eat, those to avoid, and those to question. You will also learn how to become a successful gluten-free baker; shop smart; decode food labels; and stay safe in the kitchen so you can prepare delicious and healthy gluten-free meals.
Celiac Disease Foundation | celiac.org
American Celiac Disease Alliance | americanceliac.org
Gluten Intolerance Group of North America | gluten.net
National Foundation for Celiac Awareness | celiaccentral.org
Gluten-Free Living magazine | glutenfreeliving.com
Living Without magazine | livingwithout.com
Celiac Sprue Association | csaceliacs.org