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What is a Gluten-Free Diet?

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Updated February 17, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

A gluten-free diet doesn't contain any gluten, or it's in such small amounts it's difficult to measure in your kitchen. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It's important for baking bread, pastries and other baked goods because the gluten helps provide texture and elasticity to the dough. This allows the dough to rise by trapping carbon dioxide bubbles created by the yeast and sugar.

Gluten is present in other items too. Foods and beverages made with wheat, barley and rye contain varying amounts of gluten. Foods made with these grains are not allowed on a gluten-free diet.

People who have celiac disease have an autoimmune response to gluten that damages the lining of the small intestine. This results in difficulty absorbing some types of nutrients. The symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person and include such things as bloating, digestive complaints, anemia, depression and fatigue. Your health care provider can order lab tests to determine if you have celiac disease. The only treatment for celiac disease is to avoid gluten, which will allow the digestive tract to heal, but it's a life-time requirement.

Some people don't test positively for celiac disease, but believe they feel better when they follow a gluten-free diet; so gluten-free products have become more available in grocery stores and restaurants. But why would people who apparently don't have celiac disease feel better on a gluten-free diet? It could be they are sensitive to the gluten, but lab testing can't verify this sensitivity.

Another reason you might feel better on a gluten-free diet is that by avoiding gluten, you also avoid a large number of highly processed foods because wheat is a very common ingredient. Consequently, you'll probably increase your intake of other, less-processed and more nutrient dense foods such as fruits and vegetables. Some experts also suggest that people with autism should avoid milk proteins and gluten.

A gluten-free diet contains no wheat, rye, barley, or any foods made with those ingredients. This also includes spelt, kamut, wheat starch and triticale. Some people also avoid oats and oatmeal. It's not an easy diet to follow because many foods contain gluten other than bread and pasta, such as soy sauce, tortilla chips, processed lunch meats, sausages and even French fries can contain a small amount of gluten.

Meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are all gluten-free unless they are prepared or served with gluten-containing ingredients. For example, a fish fillet is gluten-free, but not if it's fried in batter, and a baked or boiled potato is gluten-free unless you top it with gravy thickened with wheat flour. Many gluten-free foods are made with rice flour or corn meal in place of the wheat flour.

If you do follow a gluten-free diet, be cautious with some of the new gluten-free foods, such as desserts, cookies and cake mixes. While it's nice to enjoy baked treats again, they can also be high in refined sugar and fats. Be sure to read the labels and take the calorie counts into consideration if you need to watch your weight.

Source:

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health. "Celiac Disease." Accessed April 9, 2009. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/.

 

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