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What is Gluten Anyway?

07.02.13 bread

Fad diets are a constant.  In the 1930s and ‘40s, a number of models and celebrities attempted to use cigarette smoking to drop the pounds.  In fact, a popular ‘30s Lucky Strike ad campaign encouraged consumers to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” far removed from today’s stern caveats about possible lung cancer, heart disease and infertility connected to smoking cigarettes.  In the 1950s, the Christian dieting industry exploded with the idea to pray the pounds away.  The ‘70s gave way to the explosion of so-called diet pills (pulled from the market by the FDA in 1983).  And remember the low-carb Atkins diet of the ‘90s?

Today, the gluten-free diet has gained momentum and popularity.  Consumers are creating such a demand that the gluten-free market reached $2.6 billion in worldwide sales in 2011, and experts expect those sales to surpass $3 billion by 2015, according to U.S. News & World Report.  The irony? Many of us remain unaware of what gluten is or why we’re cutting it out of our diets.

Allow me to offer some clarity through my voyage into the gluten-free world. As an active kid, I had a star appetite: everything was appealing and second helpings were common – until my seventh grade belly decided otherwise. Seemingly unprovoked, my stomach began denying everything I ate: bloating, indigestion, and other unpleasant symptoms set in. As a girl in middle school, I anticipated breasts and curves, not the weight loss and stomach upsets I was experiencing. With an active history and slim genes, my family chalked it up to nature.  But when depression and severe weight loss made their debuts, we questioned nature.

After multiple tests and one feeding tube to “plump back up my cheeks”, doctors settled on a severe case of lactose intolerance. As per doctors’ orders, I nixed dairy, only to be disappointed that tossing out my sacred ice cream was offering little relief.

Sydney Champagne

Sydney Champagne

My doctors tested me for celiac disease, which is a digestive condition prompted by eating gluten. Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain types.  Wheat, barley and rye are three examples of foods with gluten.  It’s gluten that gives elasticity to dough, helps that dough rise and gives the final product a chewy texture.   A large portion of everyday foods – including breads, pasta, soups and sauces – are made from wheat, barley and rye, and therefore, contain gluten.

Now back to celiac disease.  Celiac disease damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy.  Now let me remind you celiac disease is prompted by eating gluten.  For those with celiac disease, even a crumb can be intestinally damaging, resulting in chronic bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, constipation, anemia and even infertility. Likewise, those with gluten sensitivity are subject to many of the same symptoms, but without intestinal damage. I believe my consumption of gluten was actually a big contender for how I felt physically, yet the tests for celiac disease came back negative.  I do not have celiac disease.

Still wanting answers and after discovering what’s known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity – which could result in mirrored symptoms of the actual disease – I decided to give the gluten-free diet a try. After all, I had shaken hands with each and every symptom of the disease for a consistent eight years. Someone who has non-celiac gluten sensitivity ostensibly can improve health on a gluten-free diet, and conversely, get worse by eating gluten.

Within a week of eliminating gluten, I began to notice a shift: the daily bloating and unpleasant bathroom trips had subsided. I started to gain back my long-lost appetite, along with a much-anticipated curve or two.  Today, I am a 21-year-old rising college senior who is gluten free.

Despite gluten’s ubiquitous nature, cutting the protein composite out of my diet is not entirely limiting: I eat a myriad of fresh vegetables, fruits, rice, corn, quinoa and dry beans, just to name a few treats – all naturally gluten free. And with growing awareness coupled with increasing demand, gluten-free versions of practically every food are becoming more prolific, offering much needed relief to those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to eradicate gluten from their diets.

If you’re interested in a gluten-free diet, don’t just wing it.  You can end up with serious nutritional deficiencies.  When people yank vitamin-enriched and whole grain foods from their diets and replace them with gluten-free choices, they may be more likely to miss out on important nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, and fiber. Make sure to give your physician a visit, and get the facts.  Your doctor will help you make an educated choice for your body.

Written by:  Sydney Andersen Champagne

Cotton Candy Magazine®