You might have noticed the attention gluten-free foods are receiving in the food aisles as well as in print and broadcast news.  Even Hollywood stars are singing its praises making the diet seem trendy.  If you are wondering if gluten-free is for you, a few facts can clear up some of the misconceptions about it and its associated disease states.

Gluten is a group of  proteins found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barleyrye, and malts. Gluten enables a product like dough to rise and keep its shape.

Two very different disorders are associated with gluten:  Celiac Disease (pronounced:  SEE-lee-ack) or CD and Gluten Sensitivity. To add more confusion, the term “wheat allergy” gets thrown into the mix.  Here are the distinctions.

CD is a common genetically linked autoimmune disease.    In people with celiac disease, eating foods containing gluten sets off an immune response where the body tries to rid itself of gluten created antibodies that attack and damage the lining of the small intestines.  Accordingly, it is diagnosed with a specific antibody test or biopsy of the intestines.

The most common symptoms of CD are joint pain, anemia, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue and irritability. These symptoms can mimic other diseases so long-term damage can occur if CD is not diagnosed properly.  It can lead to other autoimmune disorders such as osteoporosis, infertility and neurological conditions. The treatment for CD is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

There is no such thing as a “gluten allergy” but a person can have a  “gluten sensitivity”, which differs from the more serious celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity will cause some of the same symptoms as CD but the sufferer will test negatively on the CD blood test.

Then enters the term “wheat allergy”.  An abnormal immune response to wheat is a reaction to the proteins (other than gluten) that exist in wheat.  Wheat allergy sufferers have developed a reaction to at least one, and sometimes several, wheat allergens.

With a wheat allergy, the body does not attack itself as in CD but triggers a response to remove the wheat particles from the body.  An elimination diet, removing wheat but not necessarily gluten is the way to determine if a wheat allergy exists because gluten is not the problem.

Gluten-free diets came to the forefront in 2003 when an article in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that nearly one (1) of every 133 Americans suffers from Celiac Disease.  This is 10 times higher than previously thought.

Estimates from the Center for Celiac Research estimate that 18 million people (about 6%) of the U. S. population may have gluten sensitivity.  People with CD and people with gluten sensitivity will both respond positively to a strict gluten-free diet

As you may have deduced “gluten-free” is complicated.   If you believe CD, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergies are having an impact upon you, consult your medical teambefore instituting any dietary changes.  Such changes will trigger problems with your tests.

Next month I will continue with this topic and discuss just what a “gluten-free” label really means.

Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way.  Reach her  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.