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Gluten-Free: The Facts vs. the Fad
By Muhammed Memon, MD

For those avoiding gluten, a challenging undertaking has gotten a little easier.  More and more food labels and restaurant menus tout “gluten free.”  Despite the growing awareness and availability of gluten-free products, much of the population is confused.  What is gluten, and should we avoid it?

Gluten is the protein in certain grains like wheat, rye and barley, so it’s found in most breads, pastas, crackers and bakery items.  For the majority of us, gluten is a good source of B-vitamins, minerals and fiber.  But an estimated 1% of the U.S. population has celiac disease, which is an abnormal immune response to gluten. 

For those with celiac disease, even small amounts of gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine, causing symptoms that can include diarrhea, bloating, weight loss, anemia, chronic fatigue, lactose intolerance, and a rash on the hands, knees and buttocks.  Over time, celiac disease can cause enough harm to keep important nutrients from being absorbed, leading to bone loss and osteoporosis.

Celiac disease can develop at any age, and although it is more common in those of European ancestry, it occurs in all races.  Women are affected more than men, and there is some genetic predisposition to the disease.  It is seen more often in those with Downs’ Syndrome, Turner’s Syndrome, and various autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes.

If a person experiences symptoms of celiac disease, the first step is to see a physician.  A blood test can check for certain antibodies.  If those antibodies are present, a biopsy of the lining of the small intestine will confirm the diagnosis of celiac disease.

For those with celiac disease, symptoms generally resolve after gluten is eliminated from the diet.  After several months, damage to the small intestine usually heals. 

Dietitians and support groups can give those with celiac disease the education and  encouragement to maintain a lifelong gluten-free diet, which includes lean meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, rice and potatoes.  Because gluten is common in packaged foods, careful nutrition label reading is a must.

Unless a person is truly allergic or sensitive to gluten, there is no health benefit to avoiding or limiting gluten.    But those who suffer from celiac disease appreciate the increased options for gluten-free dining.

Board certified in gastroenterology by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Muhammed Memon, MD has twelve years’ experience in treating celiac disease and other digestive disorders and performing colon cancer screenings.  His office, located in Burleson, may be reached at 817-477-5500.