Gluten-Free In a Nutshell
What you need to know..
Last year my world was rocked when I was diagnosed with Celiacs Disease, (more commonly known as having a gluten allergy). Literally overnight my diet, and my lifestyle changed. I never realized how much gluten I ate until I could no longer could have it. No doughnuts, no pizza, no bread, no cookies. How's a girl to live?
My doctor knew nothing more than the basic information, and had minimum insight into the disease or my dietary needs. When I got home, I immediately took to my beloved Google to learn everything I could about my new way of eating. Five minutes later I felt more than overwhelmed. Some websites said I could one thing that other sites said to avoid. All of them looked well-established in their knowledge of gluten-free, so who was I to trust?
When the confusion became to much for me to handle, I turned to professors at my university and friends in the community who had celiacs and could better assist me (this probably should have been my first route in hindsight).
After gaining a plethora of knowledge, I decided to condense my findings into one simple article that will hopefully clear up at least some of the confusion.
What is a Gluten Allergy?
GLUTEN IS NOT JUST WHEAT. Gluten extends beyond wheat and also includes: rye, barley, most grain-related products besides rice (and for some people, like me, oats are not an issue if they are processed correctly). Also, foods (imitation meats, etc) that contain a lot of fillers are not safe. Under a gluten-free diet, you can pretty much kiss fast food goodbye. Gluten itself is a filler. It's what gives food its chewy texture. Being allergic to gluten means that the body can not break gluten down properly.
Besides being in food, many people do not realize that gluten can also be found in haircare products, makeup, lotions etc. This stuff is basically in everything, and if you have a gluten allergy and are particularly sensitive to that allergy, using a topical product with gluten could result in a skin rash. Be careful!!
Symptoms to Watch for
The hardest part about diagnosing a gluten allergy is that it affects everyone differently. For example, with myself I was not officially diagnosed until I was 20. For three years before that, I had periods of excessive exhaustion (sleeping 14+ hours a day), constant stomach pains, and my iron levels were dangerously low despite a normal healthy diet. At first, we thought maybe the food at the college was to blame. Then my doctor told me I had depression (what?! No.) After that was thrown out, I was told I have anemia (an iron deficiency very common in college students, which causes fatigue, etc). After a consistent iron pill regiment of over a year, none of my symptoms ceased and my iron levels dropped even further.
Enough was enough and my grandmother, who works at a hospital, suggested I try taking out certain foods in my diet to see if I had an allergy. I tried dairy-free, nothing changed. Nut allergy? Nope. Finally, I cut gluten and wheat out of my diet. After just one week I felt amazing. I did not take 10 hour 'naps', my stomach pains vanished, and my iron levels rose back to a perfectly healthy number. My doctor asked what I did, and when I told him, he looked dumbfounded at not considering it earlier.
What I learned from this (and parents who are concerned about their kids should especially know this!) is that gluten allergies are often misdiagnosed because the symptoms 1. vary from person to person 2. have the same symptoms as many other issues, especially anemia 3. gluten allergies are genetic, not developed. In fact, many people go their whole lives not knowing they have this allergy.
Main symptoms to consider:
- Itchy skin rash
- Excessive flatulence
- Unexplained weight loss/gain
- Behavioral changes
- Malabsorption of nutrients (especially iron)
- Abdominal pain
Health Diet Benefits?
Everything, and literally EVERYTHING I have read, discussed, etc about gluten free has agreed on one common denominator: Eating gluten free is no healthier than normal food. Hearing people say "Oh I'm on a gluten-free diet. It's healthier." makes me laugh a little on the inside. Gluten free pizza is just as unhealthy as normal pizza. A gluten-free diet could consist of potato chips. Where's the health benefit there? Actually eating gluten free for people without celiacs can be unhealthy for their body.
Sites, Places and Books I recommend
- Any of the "Gluten-Free on a Shoestring" cookbooks are great
- Local Organic food stores