You can’t go shopping for food anymore without seeing the words “gluten free” on products all along the way.
You may even see the label on a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste, or hear about some celebrity going gluten-free for the sake of health or weight loss.
So it wouldn’t be any wonder that you might start to ask, especially if you have stomach problems: Do I need to be eating this stuff? If I choose the gluten-free option, am I being healthier?
Gluten is a term for proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. Some people — one person in 100 to 150, according to various estimates — are intolerant of gluten. It causes an immune reaction in them that causes the intestines to fail to absorb nutrients.
That can lead to a number of problems including depression, anxiety, and slow growth in children. The condition is called celiac disease (and also sprue).
“It’s more prevalent than we thought 20 or 30 years ago,” Wichita gastroenterologist Ransom Kilgore said.
The diagnosis of celiac disease has increased in recent years with the advent of new tests for it and heightened awareness, he said. A corresponding wave of gluten-free foods — from pizza crust to brownies to beer — has followed, along with an increasing list of celebrities whose adherence to a gluten-free diet have helped make it a bit of a fad.
“There’s a lot of interest. There’s a lot of misinformation” about celiac disease, Kilgore said.
“There’s a lot of concern, which is good, because more people will be diagnosed. But a lot of people are going overboard and going gluten-free when they don’t need it.”
The confusion starts with the symptoms.
A diagnosis of celiac disease may not be made right away because symptoms differ from person to person, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While persistent diarrhea is a common symptom, some people with celiac may have constipation, and some may have neither problem, the NLM says. Bloating, gas, indigestion and weight loss are among other possible symptoms.
Blood tests are usually the starting point to diagnosing it, with a biopsy of small-intestine tissue done to confirm a diagnosis if necessary, Kilgore said.
“As we are getting more effective at finding it, the numbers are starting to mount,” Wichita family physician Tom Klein said, and people who have been struggling with “weird symptoms” for years are finally getting an answer.
Beyond healing immediate symptoms, there’s a larger reason for celiacs to get diagnosed, Klein said: They have a higher incidence of cancer, especially lymphoma.
The remedy is not easy, however.
To start to feel relief, a person must avoid all gluten for 30 days, Klein said. That can be daunting considering that means giving up all wheat products and most processed foods. Gluten hides in such things as vinegars, marinades, soy sauce and beer.
But that’s just the beginning of the relief. To maintain it, a person has to give up gluten for good.
Joyce Warkentin of Wichita said she had digestive problems for years before she was diagnosed with celiac disease. It took her a long time to give up gluten for the required 30 days, she said, but when she finally did, her problems went away.
“The advantage of having the diagnosis is when you get rather tired of this diet” it’s easier to persevere in it, Warkentin said.
But the ability to follow the diet has also gotten a lot easier as more and more foods are introduced that are gluten-free, she said.
“In the last two to three years, Wichita offers so much gluten-free fare it’s not even funny,” Dale Huntington said. He writes a blog about gluten-free dining in Wichita, http://www.glutenfreeinwichita.com/.
Huntington said he was diagnosed with celiac disease four years ago while living in Southern California, and when he moved to Wichita soon after, he had a hard time finding places he could go out to eat.
“It’s interesting there was not one place that had gluten-free pizza when I moved here; now there’s eight. It’s a trend,” Huntington said.
Restaurants including Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, P.F. Chang’s and Carlos O’Kelly’s offer gluten-free options, he said.
Health-food stores offer gluten-free foods, as do grocery stores, but “gluten-free is not cheap,” Huntington said.
“We find ways around it. Indian and Asian markets have a lot of spices and noodles that are gluten-free.”
People with celiac also are finding that their options for drinking beer have improved. John Miller of Goebel Liquor said that for about 10 years only about three types of gluten-free beer were available, but new labels have started to flow over the last year or two.
“Sales have at least doubled over the last year. ... We’re selling it more by the case so they have beer around,” Miller said of those who have celiac disease.
Not everyone who follows a gluten-free diet necessarily has celiac disease.
Some people are sensitive to gluten without having the disease. Heather McDonough of Wichita has arthritis and has gone on a gluten-free diet.
“It really, really makes a difference in my inflammation if I stay off gluten,” McDonough said.
She is manager of the new Delish deli at Food for Thought, where everything on the menu is available gluten-free. McDonough said that while “some people can be overwhelmed” by the thought of going gluten-free, “there’s a wonderful substitute for everything. It’s not as difficult as it seems.”
An upside is that many people who follow a gluten-free diet eat more healthfully and lose weight by going to a diet with more whole foods and vegetables, she said.
But Matt Murray of Green- Acres Market warns that the words “gluten-free” on a product don’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. There are gluten-free junk foods, too.
“I always promoted people to follow a natural fruits and vegetables diet, lean protein and beneficial seeds and nuts, but over time people tended to be more insistent on wanting gluten-free cakes and bread and pasta ... so from that perspective we have alternatives, but our worries are that they are low-nutrition and high-calorie,” Murray said.
“I believe that there is definite benefit to a gluten-free diet, but ... what makes something bad is when it becomes about a product and not a lifestyle choice.”