“I was reading the labels and going, ‘Are you kidding me? What, this too?’”
Having embarked on a gluten-free diet for her three girls—all diagnosed with celiac disease—Laura was learning that it would be a shopping challenge. “You expect gluten to be in bread and cookies,” she says. “But then I was looking at soy sauce, and it was in that too.” Her supermarket misadventure illustrates just how complicated a gluten-free lifestyle can be. And the reasons behind it can be equally complex.
What is Gluten, Anyway? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It has a gluey, elastic consistency, which helps baked goods form and retain their shape. Think of the sticky, stretchy dough you’ve wrestled with to make a loaf of French bread—that was gluten at work.
Naturally, you’d expect to find gluten in anything made with flour: muffins, cookies, cakes and bagels all have it. But with so many processed foods in American pantries these days, it can turn up in unexpected places. Some brands of taco seasoning, power drinks and even frozen turkeys may have thickeners, flavorings or preservatives made with gluten.
Who is Going Gluten-Free? The condition most often associated with gluten-free diets is celiac disease, a digestive disorder in which the presence of gluten sparks a reaction in the immune system. This inhibits the absorption of nutrients and, over time, causes damage to the small intestine.
Laura, a nurse practitioner, first learned of celiac disease at a medical conference several years ago. A presentation on the condition listed symptoms, including short stature and gastrointestinal problems, that sounded like one of her three daughters. All three girls later tested positive for the disease, although two of them had shown no symptoms.
Even without symptoms, Laura says, eliminating gluten from the diet was important for preventing long-term damage to the girls’ digestive systems. “It’s a lifetime diagnosis,” she says. “They have to learn to deal with it and make good choices.”
Because the diet eliminates so many options (including the staples of a child’s social life—pizza, PB&J and burgers), Laura says it is not to be taken on casually. For that reason, she doesn’t recommend it for parents looking to treat a condition that isn’t shown in studies to be helped by eliminating gluten.
“I’ve heard of people putting their kids on a gluten-free diet for autism, or for ADHD,” she says. “It eliminates a lot of processed foods, so it’s healthy in that sense, but it also eliminates a lot of nutrients. So I wouldn’t make a change that big without research to show that there’s a reason for it.”
But It’s More Than Just Celiac. Although celiac disease has the most medical data to support its association With gluten, many swear by gluten-free diets to address a variety of conditions— from chronic migraines to infertility. The National Institute of Mental Health is currently studying the effects of eliminating gluten and casein (a dairy protein) from the diets of children with autism.
Henrico mother Denise Miller is undaunted by the lack of published research on gluten and non-celiac conditions. “I operate on common sense,” she says. “I don’t have a medical degree, but I understand cause and effect. Being gluten-free made me feel better than I have ever felt.”
Since childhood, Denise experienced daily headaches. In college, her periods became irregular. After two difficult pregnancies, she had bloating so severe that her closet was stocked with skinny outfits and bloated outfits.
A series of dismissive doctors led her to a series of psychiatrists. Countless appointments and medications left her frustrated—and still sick.
Finally, a specialist in integrative medicine brought up gluten syndrome, a general term for any adverse reaction to gluten. Within weeks of eliminating gluten from her diet, Denise says, she felt like a new woman. No more bloating, no more headaches.
A couple of years later, at age 13, Denise’s son also chose a gluten-free diet after experiencing asthma symptoms and digestive issues. His sister joined them after seeing how much better her mother and brother felt.
“I think it was empowering for both of them to see that they can control how they feel by controlling what they eat,” says Denise. “They can see that preventing problems instead of medicating them is something they can do themselves.”
How Do You Do It? As Laura learned in the grocery store, getting rid of gluten isn’t just a matter of skipping the bread aisle. You have to know what ingredients to look for, including vague terms like modified food starch.
So she studied up on ingredients to watch for and foods to avoid, fueling her grocery-store frustration—and prompting a farewell to favorite restaurants. “The convenience factor was a big challenge,” she says. “We couldn’t just go anywhere We wanted to.”
But in the years since her gluten-free initiation, Laura has been pleased to see options clearly labeled in some stores and on restaurant menus. She says that greater awareness of the diet—thanks in part to celebrity advocates like Jenny McCarthy and Elisabeth Hasselbeck—has led to better understanding among the general public.
If profits are any indication, the diet certainly appears to be working for many. Sales of foods marketed as gluten-free jumped by 16 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the Nielsen Company, which studies marketing trends. Gluten-free options are popping up at P.F. Chang’s, Outback and beyond.
This leads to the big question: How does it taste?
“I’ll be honest,” says Laura. “The first gluten-free bread we tried was like cardboard. But you keep trying different brands until you find one you like. It’s not bad!”
But Denise has advice for anyone considering what they perceive to be a fad diet. “It is not something you can just try here and there,” she says. “Some people start their child on a gluten-free diet and then allow a piece of cake on their birthday, or a slice of pizza at a party. Then they say, ‘Oh well, that diet didn’t work for us.’ It has to be 100 percent, or of course it’s not going to work.”