Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is responsible for the structure, strength and texture of the dough used in baked goods. As gluten adds strength and elasticity to products, it is added to many of the commercial foods we eat.
If you think you might be sensitive to gluten, get tested. Your doctor can perform a blood test to check for gluten antibodies. If these antibodies are present, this means that your body is reacting to gluten. This will be followed up by a small biopsy of your small intestine. If you are serious about wanting a diagnosis, do not give up gluten before the blood test. Removing gluten from your diet may change the results of the blood test, and the test will appear to be normal.
If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, you must completely eliminate gluten from your diet. This is the only way to treat the disease. About one per cent of Canadians have celiac disease. It involves tiny, hair-like projections called villi that line the small intestine. In celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune (defence system) response that damages the villi. The work of the villi is to absorb nutrients, but they cannot do so when damaged.
Perhaps you are one of the six per cent of the population with ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity.’ In this case, you test negative for celiac disease, but have many of the same symptoms of gas, bloating and other complaints with your stomach and intestines. A diet that reduces or eliminates gluten may help you feel much better, but not always.
* Oats do not naturally contain gluten, but as many as 60 per cent of oats on the market have been cross-contaminated with gluten either as a crop or during processing. Pure certified gluten-free uncontaminated oats are now available in specialty grocery stores and online.
If you are not diagnosed as being sensitive to gluten, there is no evidence that dropping gluten will help you lose weight and feel more energetic. Gluten is not essential to your health. You may benefit from reducing gluten if you focus on eating gluten-free whole grains, lean meat, pulses (black beans, lentils, chickpeas), vegetables, fruit, milk and yogurt. Reducing gluten may be a stepping-stone in learning more about nutrition and making improvements to what you eat. For instance, you may be used to having a quick bowl of cereal for breakfast. Instead, try quinoa with yogurt, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, and see whether you feel fuller and more energized.
If you remove gluten from your diet, do not fall into the trap of filling up on gluten-free breads, bagels, cookies and snack foods. Many gluten-free products are made with refined flours and starches like white rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, and cornstarch. These ingredients are low in fibre, protein, iron, and B vitamins. Unlike wheat flour, they are not fortified with vitamins and minerals. Many are also higher in fat, carbohydrates and sodium. For instance, a gluten-free bun has 45 grams of carbohydrate while a regular bun has 25.
Gluten-free diets tend to be low in fibre because wheat bran is off limits. To add fibre, include two tablespoons of chia seeds, or ground flax seeds in your daily diet. Legumes and lentils are high-fibre foods appropriate for a gluten-free diet. Eating at least three fruit servings and four vegetable servings a day will also help boost your fibre intake. When buying a ready-to-eat cereal, choose one that has whole grains as a first ingredient, and at least six grams of fibre per serving.
Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are both on the rise, especially as people age into their senior years. This increase could be due to any combination of the following.
• We are eating much more gluten compared to generations before us. We choose more wheat products throughout our day, like muffins, donuts, cookies, bagels, and wraps. Gluten is found in smaller amounts, in prepared meats such as hot dogs, canned soups, sauces, salad dressings, seasonings, soy sauce, beer, flavoured coffees and chocolate bars, as well as some supplements and medications. Even small amounts can add up over the course of a day.
Canadian Celiac Association
The national voice for people who are adversely affected by gluten. Find links to your local chapter of the association, as well as practical information about removing gluten from your diet.
Registered dietitian, author and expert on celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and the gluten-free diet.
The Celiac Scene, Guides for the Gluten Free
A wealth of practical information, listing gluten-free products and services. It contains a guide for celiac endorsed restaurants in Canada and celiac-friendly fast food chains in North America, and specifically
in your local area.
If you wish to substitute the foods that contain gluten in your kitchen, check the website of your local supermarket to find a listing of gluten-free products carried in the store. A variety of gluten-free bread products and baked items are available, as well as baking mixes, flours, cereals, crackers, deli meats and soups. There are also gluten-free rice or quinoa crackers, corn tortillas or corn tortilla tostados, frozen pizzas and frozen dinners, sauces, condiments, and even ice cream.
Perhaps cutting back on gluten is a starting point for changing to a healthier way of eating. Are you filling up on refined bread products like sugary cereals, donuts and cookies? Are you getting high quality, healthy meals and snacks with plenty of whole vegetables and fruit? Your goal should be a healthier diet, whether or not it is free of gluten.