By Saba Zahid, RDN, Patient Experience Manager, Food & Nutrition Services
Nowadays, it seems like everyone is talking about an allergy to some type of food. In recent years, the most popular “allergy” has been gluten, although many people don’t have a true allergy to gluten or other foods.
Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance
A true food allergy is an immune response. This means your body’s immune system reacts to a food or a component of food, identifying it as a danger and tries to protect the body from it. Symptoms of a true food allergy, such as hives, trouble breathing or swelling of the tongue can appear almost immediately or within a couple of hours and some, like anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, typically affects other systems, such as the digestive system and symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, or a stomach ache, gradually set in. A food intolerance can occur for a number of different reasons, from not having an enzyme to properly digest the food to certain chemicals and compounds in foods, including caffeine, amines, or salicylates.
What’s Going on with Gluten?
In recent years, it seems everyone has developed a gluten allergy or intolerance/sensitivity and many are avoiding gluten because they claim it’s not healthy. So what’s the deal? Gluten is a naturally-occurring protein in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. Statistics do seem to indicate there is a higher prevalence of both gluten allergy and intolerance than in previous years. Researchers believe that this increase is due to the fact the wheat today is different from wheat 100 years ago due to hybridization and changes in process. This means that there is a higher amount of gluten found in wheat and other grains. Some scientists believe this may be the reason why we are seeing an increase in the number of people that are sensitive to gluten.
When to Avoid Gluten
Does this mean avoiding gluten is a good idea for all of us? Not necessarily. For those individuals that have a true allergy to gluten (celiac disease), gluten should be eliminated from your diet to avoid damage to your body due to repeated and long-term immune response. If you are sensitive to gluten and experience some mild symptoms, such as diarrhea or a stomach ache, it is probably better to limit your gluten intake, but having some gluten will not be life-threatening.
For the rest of us, going gluten-free is not necessary. Many claims of how gluten is bad for your skin or is a culprit in weight gain are untrue and unfounded. In fact, trying to gluten-free when you don’t have to can cause you to miss out on important vitamins and minerals. Gluten itself does not offer nutritional benefits, but the whole grains that it is found in do. Furthermore, adopting a true gluten-free diet is no easy task since wheat is ubiquitous in the American diet. Breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, conventional pasta, pastry goods, and even processed foods all have gluten in them and would have to be eliminated from your diet. Unnecessarily going gluten-free would mean unnecessarily cutting out an entire group of foods and the vitamins and minerals found in those foods.
So What Should You Do?
If you’re experiencing symptoms that you believe are related to gluten, it’s important to talk to your doctor to rule out celiac disease through bloodwork. If celiac disease is ruled out, you might have gluten sensitivity, which you can determine by keeping a food diary of what you eat, what symptoms you have and when you get them. A registered dietitian can then help you by explaining what foods have gluten in them, and how you can still meet your nutritional needs on a gluten-free diet.
If you do have gluten sensitivity or any other food allergies and would like the help of a dietitian, Shore Medical Center’s new Outpatient Nutrition Counseling program is the perfect place to start. For more information, visit www.shoremedicalcenter.org/nutrition-counseling.