Wheat ears and bread gluten

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Gluten is a funny thing. That is to say, there is no nutritional benefit to gluten itself, but there are lots of nutritional benefits to be gained from foods containing gluten. There’s been a lot of talk recently about going “gluten-free” much the same way people try to reduce their sugar or carbs. But the truth is, unless you have a gluten intolerance or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, then taking gluten out of your diet will do little for you healthwise.

So what is celiac disease anyway? A person with celiac disease will have a negative immune response in their small intestine when they consume gluten, causing damage to the lining of the small intestine. Celiac disease can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea, among other symptoms. Two other conditions are associated with gluten: gluten intolerance and wheat allergy. While gluten intolerance seems to be overdiagnosed, actual celiac disease seems to be underdiagnosed. A wheat allergy is the least common of the three gluten-related issues. Though there is no cure for celiac disease (much like other autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis), there is an effective way to manage effects and symptoms.

For somebody with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a gluten-free diet is essential. Few people know this better than Rivkah Estrin, whose daughter went gluten-free at the tender age of 6. “She started getting headaches that were so bad, she would throw up,” Estrin says. Not wanting her daughter to go through rigorous medical testing, such as an MRI, Estrin decided to do a little investigative work on her own. “I Googled headaches in children and the first 10 responses that came up were about celiac disease,” she explains, which prompted her to try taking wheat out of her daughter’s diet. “Within two or three days, the headaches completely stopped and she was a completely different kid. It was an instant change.” So began Estrin’s long road to a gluten-free diet for her daughter.

Commitment to her daughter’s health has helped Estrin discover other gluten quirks as well — like that gluten residue stays in nonstick pans and ovens after food with gluten has been cooked in it.

Gluten is the protein in breads and cakes that make it expand and give it that doughy texture. If something doesn’t have gluten in it, it won’t rise in quite the same way, but for someone on a gluten-free diet (and even someone who’s not), it can be just as satisfying. Just ask Estrin. She makes a delicious pound cake that her other kids gobble up, even though it’s gluten-free. 

If you work hard at it, you can find gluten-free substitutes for almost anything. Case in point? Wheat, rye and barley all contain gluten. A common substitute for wheat flour in gluten-free recipes is brown rice flour, which doesn’t contain gluten. (For more gluten-free baking substitutes and tips, check out this great website).

Bottom line, folks? A gluten-free diet is key for those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or a wheat allergy. Otherwise, gluten is in many healthy foods that we consume every day and shouldn’t be taken out of your diet without good reason. If you’re unsure about what to do, check with your doctor to help you sort it all out.

— Chanie

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