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Should you go gluten-free?

Photo credit: Esquires Coffee.

It’s Celiac Awareness Month, so you may have come across sales on gluten-free products in your grocery store, or you may have read more news items than usual about going gluten-free or about the unique health concerns posed by celiac disease. So: should you go gluten-free?

First, it’s important to understand that the only people who need to go gluten-free are those with celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious auto-immune condition that causes the body’s digestive system to attack itself whenever the celiac person consumes gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, and it works its way into more than just bread and pasta. It’s also used as a protein binder in many processed foods. Celiacs suffer a variety of symptoms associated with the disease, including diarrhoea, body pain, fatigue, and poor complexion, among many others, most of which are brought on by the fact that intestinal inflammation inhibits the absorption of food and nutrients. For that reason, and because diagnosis can mean a biopsy of the lining of the small intestine, celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose. This means that many people who suspect they have it decide to go gluten-free on a trial basis, to see if the change makes them feel any better.

If you’re truly feeling ill, you should see a doctor. Your physician will be able to determine which if any tests you should take to rule out some basic health concerns like pregnancy, high or low blood sugar, mononucleosis, or even flu. If you’ve already gone through this process, an elimination diet may be the next step. Here are some tips for going on a gluten-free diet:

  • Eliminate only one food from your diet at a time. If you eliminate gluten and another food, like dairy or soy or eggs, you’ll never know if the changes stem from eliminating one or all of the foods.
  • Eliminate gluten (or any other chosen food) for a full month. For celiacs, the intestinal lining takes a while to heal from gluten-related inflammation. It can take longer than a week, and in reality celiacs aren’t truly “healed” until about a year after their new diet begins. If you’re menstruating, a month will also give you the chance to experience any changes in your cycle brought on by the change in diet.
  • Check all your packaged goods. Gluten can sneak into the flavourings of products that have no wheat, like jars of pasta sauce or foods where soy sauce is used as a flavouring. You’ll have to use gluten-free tamari in place of traditional soy sauce, and make sure that cans of soup or sauce have no wheat flour used as a thickener.
  • Keep a diary of what you eat instead of gluten-based foods. There are apps for your smartphone or other device that will help, but sometimes good old pencil and paper work just fine. The thing about making a change to your diet is that it exposes all your habits, and these are worth taking note of. So is your health — in your diary, make sure to write down how you feel upon waking, in the middle of the day, and before bed. Do you have spurts of energy, or low points? You may not notice until you’re writing it all down.