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The Gluten Free Diet

A gluten-free diet denotes a dietary plan that eliminates all foods containing gluten from its purview. Gluten alludes to the protein composites found in wheat endosperms that imparts elasticity to the dough and chewiness to the baked end products. Other cereal grains containing this protein include rye, barley, triticale and malt. A gluten-free diet is the only prescription for the treatment of celiac disease- an autoimmune disease of the small intestine, stimulated by gluten. Another medical condition necessitating a gluten-free dietary regimen includes Dermatitis herpetiformis- a type of celiac disease, where gluten induces the immune system to attack the skin. Further, gluten sensitivity or the inability to metabolize gluten also compels people to choose the gluten-free dietary route. The rapid increase in the markets for gluten-free products, as noted in recent times, implies that the demand for such products is not limited to people with these specific medical conditions, but extends far beyond. A gluten-free diet is perceived to be a healthier dietary option and a roadmap to weight-loss success, by many. However, dieticians and nutritionists maintain that while a gluten-free diet is essential for people with medical conditions, like celiac disease, it may not be a nutritionally viable option for the majority of the rest, treading this dietary route.

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Gluten-free diet as a treatment for medical conditions

A gluten-free diet is the only medical treatment for celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, where the presence of gluten stimulates the immune system to attack the small intestine. Recurrence of attacks on the small intestine can retard its capacity to absorb essential nutrients, such as, vitamins and iron. It may eventually have serious health implications, leading to diseases such as, osteoporosis, neurological disorders, anemia and even carcinoma of the small intestine, in the most extreme cases. Therefore, a gluten-free diet is prescribed in such cases, to give room to the small intestine to heal - restoring it, containing the risk factors associated with celiac disease, thereby averting the slowdown of the physiological machinery. The presence of gluten also induces another form of celiac disease, known as, dermatitis herpetiformis, which stimulates the immune system to attack the skin, resulting in painful rashes. These rashes are usually symmetrical. Patients with such a medical condition may also develop intestinal cancers, if they fail to embrace a gluten-free diet. Gluten sensitivity is yet another medical condition, where unpleasant health consequences can be avoided by adopting a gluten-free diet. Gluten sensitivity is much like lactose intolerance, in that, the body is unable to metabolize gluten, whereby consumption of foods containing gluten leads to gastrointestinal distress, such as, bloating, diarrhea etcetera. However, gluten sensitivity is a temporary condition, resulting in short-term digestive discomfort, rather than long-term chronic diseases. Patients suffering from these medical conditions can, therefore, steer clear of both the short-term unpleasant symptoms and long term serious health repercussions, by taking recourse to a gluten-free dietary regimen. Clinical researches are underway to discover effective drugs and vaccines for alleviating possible damages to the small intestine, resulting from intermittent lapses in the diet, thereby rendering a fool-proof method of treatment.

It is surprising that a diet intended essentially for the treatment of medical conditions, such as celiac diseases or gluten intolerance, has become a mainstream diet. With the advent of an array of gluten-free dietary options in the market, the gluten-free diet is being adopted by more and more people as an instrument for weight-loss, rather than exclusively as a curative diet for gluten intolerance. Celebrities are promoting gluten-free diets, as a healthier option, with the potential to revitalize the physical and emotional health of the followers of such dietary regimen. Many proponents of gluten-free diets perceive gluten sensitivity in non-celiac patients, to be spreading like an epidemic. They promote a gluten-free diet as a panacea for chronic illnesses- providing energy and positive health. Celiac experts are raising concerns over the anti-gluten drive among people. Medical experts believe that while proteins in gluten adversely affect the small intestine in celiac patients, these undigested protein fragments of gluten are innocuous for the majority of people without celiac diseases. The health benefits of gluten-free diets are nebulous for people who are not susceptible to the medical conditions of gluten-intolerance or gluten sensitivity. On the contrary, dieticians and nutritionists are concerned that gluten-free diet as a “fad”, would risk the elimination of vital nutrients, such as, folate, vitamin B and fibers, present in cereals containing gluten, including wheat, rye, barley ,oats and so on. Further, the exclusion of such a wide range of carbohydrates would block the key sources of complex carbohydrates, essential for a balanced diet. It has been observed that gluten -free edible items are not as wholesome or nourishing. While they are generally not fortified, they often contain more sugar and fat, to compensate for the texture and flavor of gluten.

Gluten-free foods

Gluten-free diets involve foods that do not contain the protein gluten. . A gluten-free diet includes the whole gamut of healthy and nourishing foods, such as, vegetables, nuts, fruits, fish, poultry, meats, eggs, legumes and most low-fat dairy products. However, one has to ensure that they are not processed with or contaminated by gluten-containing grains, preservatives or additives. Gluten-free alternatives include grains and starches such as, amarnath, soy, quinoa, millet, rice, flax, gluten-free flours, corn, tapioca, etcetera. The primary proteins in gluten include glutenin and gliadin, which cannot be fully digested by the human intestine. These undigested protein fragments lead to serious maladies in people with celiac diseases. The only viable medical solution for celiac diseases lies in embracing the gluten-free diet. Transitioning to a gluten-free diet has become smoother, owing to the availability of gluten-free foods in specialty grocery stores. Gluten is found in grains including wheat, barley, rye and triticale. Therefore, a gluten-free dietary regimen would imply the exclusion of foods made up of these gluten-containing grains, and foods involving, preservatives or additives with even traces of gluten. One has to be cautious while selecting foods for gluten-free diets, since even trace amounts of gluten can adversely affect the small intestine. Wheat products including kemut, spelt, farina, semolina, bulgur, durum flour are to be avoided. Foods, such as, breads, cakes, french fries, pastas, sauces, ready-to-eat soups are to be ruled out, unless they are explicitly marked gluten-free or made with gluten-free ingredients, including rice, soy or corn. Patients with gluten intolerance should also steer clear of food additives, play-doh and medications containing gluten, among others. One should maintain a strict vigilance on cross-contamination, by reading the ingredient list carefully, on manufactured edible items and check cross-contamination at home, school or work, with due care.

Possible risks of going gluten-free

Eating a healthy gluten-free diet calls for meticulous planning and dietary discipline. Even trace amount of gluten can be detrimental to patients suffering from celiac diseases or gluten sensitivity. For patients suffering from celiac diseases, every bite of food in every meal needs to be monitored, necessitating an extremely strict dietary regimen- to avoid the serious consequences associated with small dietary slip-ups. However, the explosion in the markets for gluten-free products cannot be solely attributed to this small segment, suffering from medical conditions. This huge demand is being fuelled by the anti-gluten zeal of the large segments of gluten-avoiders, who adopt the gluten-free diet voluntarily, for its perceived health benefits, rather than as a prescription for medical conditions. Doctors are worried about the dangerous ramifications of masses going gluten-free, without any apparent medical conditions. Excluding a large variety of gluten-containing grains equates to the elimination of sources of complex carbohydrates, which forms the foundation of a healthy, balanced diet. Also, a gluten-free diet misses out on the key nutrients found in carbohydrates, such as, folate, vitamin B and fibers. Gluten-free diets are deprived of the goodness of vitamin D , iron and calcium, found in fortified breads and cereals. Also, they are generally low in zinc and magnesium. Therefore, going gluten-free implies the possible risks of encountering nutritional deficiencies. It has been observed that the gluten-free products are higher in saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar than their conventional counterparts. Besides, the gluten-free alternatives are more expensive than their traditional analogues. Doctors outline the possible risks of casually adopting a gluten-free diet, without proper tests or diagnoses. They maintain that antibodies to gluten may be difficult to detect, in people already avoiding gluten, leading to incorrect test results, hindering the accurate diagnosis for gluten intolerance.

Conclusion

The large assortment of gluten-free foods has made it easier for patients with gluten-intolerance or gluten-sensitivity to eat healthy diets. The foundation of a healthy gluten-free diet rests on natural foods comprising of, lean meat, fish, fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Nutritious gluten-free alternatives, such as, amarnath and quinoa are being used to manufacture gluten-free foods. Gluten is present in foods in various indirect forms too, such as, preservatives, thickener and flavorings. Therefore, a thorough research and careful attention to the ingredient list is imperative, to steer clear of gluten in its entirety. Utmost caution in selecting gluten-free foods is vital for celiac patients, in order to rule out even trace amounts of gluten from their diets ,that could induce the immune system to attack the small intestine, resulting in paralyzing gastrointestinal symptoms. Patients suffering from celiac diseases are recommended to consult a dietician for practical advices on healthy, balanced gluten-free diets. Adopting a whole new pattern of diet is a life-altering decision. Similar to any other changes in life, getting accustomed to a dietary shift requires time and patience. Adhering to a gluten- free diet on a day-to-day, meal-to -meal basis could be challenging. However, for people with celiac diseases or gluten sensitivity, the health benefits stemming from the strict adherence to gluten-free diets, acts as a motivating force, transforming it from a routine exercise into a way of life.

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