You’re hearing it all the time now: gluten-free food, gluten-free restaurants, gluten-free stores… What does it mean? What is gluten and why are we hearing so much about it all of a sudden?
Gluten is a protein (in wheat, barley, rye…) that is found in many products, including food, medicines and beauty products. For some of us, avoiding gluten is the latest health craze. For many of us, this protein is not only something that can make us feel ill, but can do some serious damage to our body.
Celiac disease is a life-long autoimmune disease that damages your body when gluten is consumed. It causes the body’s immune system to attack and damage the small intestine. Symptoms of celiac disease can range from none at all to any of 300 symptoms associated with the disease. Recent studies estimate that as many as one in every 133 Americans may have it. Many, many others avoiding gluten have food allergies and gluten intolerance. It is crucial to get a diagnosis as soon as possible, though, to begin healing and avoid related diseases including nutritional deficiencies, neurological disorders and cancers.
- At least 3 million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease. It is estimated that 97 percent of people with celiac disease have not yet been diagnosed.
- Celiac disease is a genetic disease that tends to run in families. A person can have the disease and not know it until it is triggered by severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection or childbirth. It can appear at any point in life, from infancy to the elderly.
- Gluten interferes with the body’s absorption of nutrients, causing deficiencies no matter how much food is eaten.
- Allergies are immune reactions to proteins and can be life-threatening. Intolerances are not immune reactions and do not cause death or damage to the intestines, but can cause unpleasant symptoms.
- The best gluten-free foods available are fresh veggies, fruits and other natural foods.
Back to our original question: having access to all this gluten-free food is good, right? Not necessarily. It is absolutely crucial that gluten-free means gluten-free. Those living with celiac disease cannot take chances with this distinction as even the tiniest fraction of a crumb will cause damage to the body. We need better regulation and labeling. The Food and Drug Administration first proposed gluten-free labeling in 2007, but has not finalized it. Unfortunately, more and more food is being advertised as gluten-free when, in fact, it is not safe. The same can be said of restaurants advertising gluten-free meals without the proper food, kitchen, or serving conditions to warrant this title. To those of you offering gluten-free food, please take the time and caution necessary to ensure our safety. To those of you taking advantage of this abundance of gluten-free food, please be careful. Support those companies that are taking care of us and educate those that are not.
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