Should You Go Gluten-Free?

By Kristin Ohlson, July/August 2009

Whole grains are good for you. So why are so many Americans giving up wheat, rye and barley? Should you?

"I am a vegetarian whose blood sugar was creeping up past the normal range. (Type 2 diabetes, here I come) Several friends who had been on medication for years for type 2 CURED their disease by going completely gluten-free. I joined...

The researchers then drew blood from young men who were roughly the same age as the recruits had been when their blood was drawn and from older men who were born around the same time as the recruits. When they checked these new samples, 0.9 percent of the young men and 0.8 percent of the older men had the antibodies, suggesting that celiac disease may be four to four and a half times as common today as it was in the 1950s.

“It’s not just that we’re diagnosing celiac disease more,” Murray says. “There’s a lot more of it around. That tells us that something in our environment has dramatically changed the rate of celiac disease.” But experts don’t know what has changed. Some experts subscribe to the “hygiene theory,” which holds that our modern environment is so excessively sanitized that our immune systems don’t get a chance to develop properly during childhood. Others suspect that the prevalence of gluten in the modern diet is to blame.

Gluten’s ubiquitousness is precisely why celiac disease is difficult to manage. Breads, cakes, pastas and cereals may be the most obvious sources of gluten, but the protein also finds its way into many ingredients commonly used in processed foods as stabilizers, emulsifiers and thickeners. Canned soups and stews often contain modified wheat starch and so do some medications. Beer and whiskey are distilled from wheat and other grains. Some brands of vinegar, soy sauce and even salad dressings contain gluten, so it’s important to read ingredient lists closely. “Studies show that it only takes 50 milligrams of gluten [about 1⁄8 teaspoon of bread] to damage the villi, but many people get sick way before that,” says Cheryl Wilson, president of the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group. “For instance, even the tiny crumbs that remain if I take croutons off a salad will make me sick.”

Next: Gluten-Free Truths and Myths »

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