The Gluten Enigma

by Gretchen Inman

Three million Americans have celiac disease and the counts are on the rise with over 18 million with gluten sensitivity. The continued emergence of people afflicted with some sort of sensitivity or full blown intolerance to gluten is slowly becoming an epidemic. As a food lover I could not imagine being restricted to the things one can or cannot eat but a person with celiac disease has one treatment and it is a lifelong elimination of gluten from their diet. The excruciating pain suffered from the intestinal inflammation is reason enough to abstain from wheat laden foods. But wheat isn’t the only culprit. Oats, barley, kamut, spelt, semolina, durum, triticale and any other grain that could be cross contaminated. There have also been studies to note that an increase in the elderly population and the use (or overuse) of NSAID pain relievers can be attributed to gluten sensitivity.

Knowing a bit more about what celiac disease entails and where it comes from, causes etc. are a subject I would like to know more about. I attribute many aliments to several factors- genetics, environment, lifestyle, which includes diet. What in your diet could have created predisposition to this disease or that… Most diseases are in fact polyfactoral meaning it takes more than one factor to create the malady. Celiac disease is not age related, seems anyone can be afflicted. Children suffer from malnourishment and pain, lack of growth, ADHD and due to the inability to absorb nutrients. What could be more painful than a child not being able to eat, procure proper nutrients and thrive.

Only a small minority of celiacs suffer from refractory disease, which means they do not improve on a gluten-free diet. This may be because the disease has been present for so long that the intestines are no longer able to heal on gluten-free diet, or they aren’t adhering to a tightly prescribed diet, or they are consuming foods that are inadvertently contaminated with gluten. If alternative causes have been eliminated, steroids or immuno suppressants may be considered in order to alleviate their discomfort.

Historically, humanity has always had some form of wheat gluten in their diets and the only cultures that do not report symptoms are that of Asian or African decent. These cultures receive their starches from other sources than gluten. The rice, corn, potato, and non-glutenous starches have not been a predominate element in their diets. Therefore the genetic disposition to celiac or gluten sensitivity is virtually nonexistent. Lactose intolerance, however, is another matter.

With our modern diets so high in grain contents, celiacs are prone to contamination consuming public (restaurants), processed or otherwise prepared by someone else. The plight of obtaining proper nutrition is a daily challenge. Eating is one thing but absorbing the nutrients in order to remain healthy is much more challenging. Alternative grains that can be consumed san gluten are millet, farro, rice, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat and non cereal starches such as bananas and potatoes will not elicit symptoms.
Aside from blatant dietary neurosis, I believe the sufferers of celiac or gluten sensitivity is very real. I have empathized with the debilitating nature of the symptoms with someone whose chips were contaminated- it took virtually three days for his pain to subside. I also believe certain people suffer from eating disorders by imagining their maladies in order to gain attention.

Restauranteurs requests for gluten free items are increasingly on the rise and in my experience I would estimate many of them are gluten free by choice not because they suffer from gluten intolerance. Those of us who subscribe to a gluten free diet tout the virtues of weight loss, mental clarity and overall feeling better. Chances are the susceptibility of malnourishment through lack of nutrient absorption was the cause. Aside from the true disease I always say moderation is the key to everything.

Gretchen Inman is a regular culinary writer for The Healthy Planet.