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What is Gluten and Why Are People Allergic to It?

Updated on December 8, 2014

Gluten Intolerance is Real

Gluten Can Make You Very Sick
Gluten Can Make You Very Sick

What is Gluten?

Have you heard of gluten and gluten intolerance but just don’t understand what it is? Perhaps a friend or family member has to follow a certain type of diet to avoid getting sick. What is gluten and why are so many people allergic to it? That’s a good question. Find your answers here.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is the substance that keeps bread soft and doughy and keeps pasta from sticking. This protein is found in bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, ice cream with cookie bits, candy with crunchy bits, condiments, and even potato chips. Any of these food items can be made gluten free but the gluten-based versions are extremely harmful to the health of a person who is intolerant to them.

What Are So Many People Allergic to Gluten?

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the rise in gluten sensitivity is because of the advent of genetically modified wheat. This isn’t the case yet…but it could be. Though 80-90% of corn, soy, and sugar beets are genetically modified, genetically modified wheat hasn’t yet been approved for mass production. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the very near future though.

Today’s wheat is not the same wheat enjoyed by your great grandparents. It comes from semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivators. Cultivators, short for cultivated varieties, are plants that have been propagated via stem cuttings, not from seed. If you know anything about Xerox copies, each time you copy a copy, it degrades its value.

They have also been hybridized by cross-breeding and refined in a factory setting, with synthetic chemicals, additives, and sweeteners your body doesn’t recognize as food. Just small changes in the wheat protein structure can cause a profound and devastating immune system response.

Today’s wheat is also not nearly as nutrient-dense. In the beginning days of modern agriculture, wheat was stone-ground by hand and fermented before baking. This fermentation process pre-digested the wheat before it touched your plate.

Wheat is Poison for Some

It May Look Pretty But It Can Be Deadly
It May Look Pretty But It Can Be Deadly

Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity

What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity has so many different symptoms associated with it, it can be difficult to diagnose. A serum blood test can test for celiac antibodies but not everyone with gluten sensitivity has this autoimmune disorder. This doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely intolerant to the protein, however.

Common symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:

  • Gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation
  • Nausea or fatigue after eating
  • Chronic muscle and joint aches
  • Ataxia (losing balance)
  • Thyroid disease
  • Autoimmune disease (of any kind)
  • Chronic sinus problems
  • Migraine headaches
  • Dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, hives
  • Mood disorders

Diagnosing Gluten Sensitivity with an Elimination Diet

As I mentioned above, blood tests for gluten intolerance aren’t always accurate. Even if you’ve had a blood test and it has come back negative, you could still be suffering from the effects of gluten sensitivity. The most accurate way to tell if you have gluten intolerance is to do an elimination diet.

To do a gluten elimination diet, you must eliminate any and all traces of gluten from your diet for a period of 6-8 weeks. The best way to do this is to visit your local health food store during off hours and ask the person behind the counter to help you. He or she can help you understand food labels and pick out the right products for you.

It is important to be very diligent about reading food labels during this diet. Condiments, cold cuts, and seasonings are just one of the many commonly-overlooked sources of gluten you need to avoid.

Once the elimination period is over, reintroduce gluten into your diet en masse. Really load up. Have a bagel and some wheat-based cereal, for example. If you’re sensitive to gluten, you’ll know!

Preparing Food for the Gluten Intolerant Person

Cooking for the gluten intolerant person can be tricky. Unless you fully believe how dangerous gluten is to someone with this condition, you shouldn’t cook for them. You may be a wonderful cook and really care about your friend but, first and foremost, you must take their condition seriously if you’re going to keep them safe.

Just “a little bit of gluten” isn’t alright. Even if they don’t have an immediate reaction to the food you’ve prepared, the gluten is poison to their body and is contributing to the destruction of the digestive tract, no matter how small the amount.

The first thing to be aware of is the food you’re preparing. Whole foods like vegetables, fruit, potatoes, and unseasoned meat, poultry, and fish are naturally gluten-free. Pastas, breads, desserts, and condiments must be carefully inspected. Be sure whatever you select for the gluten intolerant person says, “gluten free” on the packaging.

When preparing food, be sure the surfaces, bowls, and cookware you use are clean and free of gluten. In other words, don’t use the same cutting board you used to cut up a piece of wheat bread hours earlier.

The best way to be sure you do not cross-contaminate your gluten-free friend’s food is to prepare his first. If this is not possible, you must use mindfulness and caution. When preparing two different types of pasta, for example, be sure to use two separate pots and two separate stirring spoons. Do not mix them up.

Is Gluten Intolerance Real?

Is Gluten Intolerance Real?

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Gluten Avoidance is Not a "Fad Diet"

Gluten avoidance is not some sort of fad diet; it’s a real condition that can lead to serious health problems. If a person with gluten sensitivity does not avoid this protein, it can set them up for the development of diabetes, thyroid disease, and even colon cancer.

Know that you know how serious gluten intolerance really is and what causes it; it might be easier for you to understand the behavior of the gluten intolerant people around you. If they grill you about every ingredient in your food and “freak out” when they see breadcrumbs in their butter, it’s because this protein is poison to them. Have patience. The more you know about gluten intolerance, the easier it is to manage, whether it’s for yourself or someone you love.

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    • soconfident profile image

      Derrick Bennett 4 years ago

      I never really understood what gluten was, I just started hearing about it like two years ago.