Gluten-free diets are being touted as the solution to everything from digestive troubles to excess fat. But before you hop on the bandwagon, read this
Just 10 years ago, barely anyone knew what the word gluten meant, let alone gave any thought to avoiding it. But now gluten-free diet menus are all the rage, and high-profile stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, and Victoria Beckham have been linked to the gluten-free lifestyle, which is said to contribute to increased energy, thinner thighs, and reduced belly bloat.
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What It Is, Exactly
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. Most of us unknowingly love it, because gluten gives our favorite foods that special touch: It makes pizza dough stretchy, gives bread its spongy texture, and is used to thicken sauces and soups.
Gluten-free eating has a basis in science, and it does help a genuine health problem. To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten is truly evil: Their bodies regard even a tiny crumb of it as a malicious invader and mount an immune response, says Alessio Fasano, M.D., medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore. Problem is, this immune reaction ends up damaging the small intestine, which causes both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies. If untreated, these responses can then lead to intestinal cancers as well as complications such as infertility and osteoporosis.
Experts once thought celiac disease was a rare disorder, believed to affect one in every 10,000 people. But an Archives of Internal Medicine study in 2003 suggests that celiac disease is far more prevalent than anyone had suspected, affecting one in 133 Americans. With increased testing and awareness, more people realized why they felt sick after eating a piece of bread, and food companies discovered a new market.
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Now another problem is emerging, and experts are referring to it as nonceliac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity can lead to similar celiac symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and bloating. But unlike celiac, sensitivity doesn’t damage the intestine. For years, health professionals didn’t believe nonceliac gluten sensitivity existed, but experts are beginning to acknowledge that it may affect as many as 20 million Americans, says Fasano.
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