Friday, August 13, 2010

Gluten: The Hidden Enemy Among Us

In recent years, the way Americans perceive the food on their plates has transformed dramatically. After reading countless articles and hearing news stories highlighting the expanding waistline of the country as well as an increase in diabetes and heart disease, many citizens have made it their duty to cut down on saturated fats, added sugar, added salt, and high fructose corn syrup (to name a few). The public is now food label savvy and it is not uncommon to catch the average grocery store consumer quickly scanning the back of a box.

Arguably, the information circling out there about fat and sugar being “the enemy” is misconstrued. For example, you may think that you are eating healthier when you replace regular Popsicles with sugar-free Popsicles; however, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, artificial sweeteners like Aspartame and Sucralose (which make those sugar-free Popsicles taste so good) are actually stomach irritants to many people, especially to those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In reality, there are a lot of myths out there about what is bad for you and what is good for you. The culprit seems to change every week. Yet, there is one enemy that receives relatively little attention and may be wreaking the most havoc on many Americans. This assailant goes by the name of “gluten” and is contained in nearly everything you eat.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. These three ingredients make up our most beloved of foods like pastas, cereals, breads, cookies, and cakes. People who are gluten-intolerant may experience a range of symptoms when they ingest these foods. They may suffer from abdominal pain, bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Even foods that are supposedly healthy like whole grain pasta and whole wheat bread cause these painful symptoms. The fact that whole wheat bread can make a person extremely sick is quite surprising; it competes directly with the information Americans receive every day about what is healthy to eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 8 ounces of grains a day for men between the ages of nineteen and thirty-- the equivalent of eating eight slices of bread. For those who are gluten-intolerant, eating eight slices of bread a day would cause severe discomfort and agonizing symptoms. For those with celiac disease, the advice of the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be absolutely detrimental to their health.

Celiac disease is a genetically inherited disorder. It is most common in people of Northern European descent, but it can also be found in Spanish and Asian populations. WebMD defines celiac disease as an autoimmune disorder; autoimmune disorders encompass a variety of diseases in which a person’s body turns on itself. Celiac disease is no different. When people with celiacs ingest gluten, their immune systems attack the gluten and in turn, their own bodies. Villi in the small intestine become damaged, making it difficult for the small intestine to absorb nutrients from food. Over time, the villi become shorter and it becomes nearly impossible for a person to get the nutrients he needs. As a result, people with celiac disease are often times anemic or suffer from Type 1 diabetes. Forty-two percent of people with celiacs also suffer from liver disease, most likely due to the increased amount of work the liver is required to do in the wake of a damaged small intestine.

Ten years ago, the medical world believed that celiac disease was rare and affected merely 1 in 2500 people. Recent studies show that this number is actually much higher. The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center reports that 3 million Americans, or 1 in 133, have celiac disease. Only 1 in 4700 is ever diagnosed. It is quite odd that a disease that affects three million people is relatively unknown. Take multiple sclerosis, or MS. Most of us know what MS is, and yet it only affects 333,000 Americans. Part of the reason why celiac disease is not well known is because its symptoms vary widely. People with celiacs may have symptoms similar to those with gluten intolerance, such as diarrhea or bloating, but they may also suffer from bone pain, weight-loss, headaches, or arthritis. In this light, a person who is unaware that they have celiacs may falsely attribute arthritis to old age when it is really gluten that is causing the pain in their joints. Strangely enough, some people with celiac disease do not show symptoms at all.

If some people with celiacs don’t show symptoms, why then would they need a diagnosis? Besides a high prevalence of anemia, diabetes, and liver disease in people with celiacs, thirty-nine percent suffer from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. They also suffer from low bone density, pancreatic disorders, nerve disease, and obesity. In fact, thirty to forty percent of people with celiac disease are obese. Not only is gluten a possible cause of cancer, but it could also be one of the things that is making some Americans obese.

Though it is possible that you might be suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, don’t be too quick to begin treatment. First, you should visit your doctor and request to be tested for the disease. If you do indeed have celiac disease, you must begin treatment. Treatment in this case is not a pill or medication: it is a strictly controlled diet. Eating gluten-free is the only option to obtain better health and it is not necessarily easy. Pastas, breads, cookies, crackers, and cereals contain gluten. Gluten is also in salad dressings, deli meats, beer, flavored potato chips, and many sauces. Gluten is very sneaky and is not listed simply as “gluten” in the food’s ingredients; this is part of what makes it so dangerous. You must learn how to navigate tricky terms, such as “enriched bleached flour” and “malted flavoring,” both of which contain gluten. Yet, those who eat gluten- free can eat many things. All fruits and vegetables are gluten- free. Meats, cheese, and rice are also safe, as long as the sauces or flavorings do not contain gluten. Many grocery chains have separate aisles that contain crackers, cookies, and pastas that are gluten-free. In the long run, the diet change is worth it.

Though we are told that high fructose corn syrup and saturated fats are our enemies, could it be that some of us have another enemy lurking in the whole wheat bread and pasta that is reportedly healthy? With three million Americans suffering from celiac disease and only 1 in 4700 being diagnosed, it is entirely possible that some obese Americans are gaining weight as a result of a reaction to gluten. Added sugar, added salt, high fructose corn syrup, and saturated fat are indeed enemies, but for some of us, we must extend this list to include gluten. It is time we pay attention to what we’re eating, talk to our doctors, and consider giving up the whole grain pasta.

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