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Eating gluten-free, from the Harvard Health Letter

Gluten seems to be the food ingredient non grata these days. Why? Partly because doctors are diagnosing more cases of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder whose symptoms are triggered by gluten, a protein-starch combination found in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt. For now, a gluten-free diet is the only way people with celiac disease can deal with their condition.

In addition, a growing number of people fall into a gray area: they don’t have celiac disease, but they do have a hard time digesting gluten. There are no tests for this problem, aside from trial and error with a gluten-free diet, reports the June 2009 issue of the Harvard Health Letter.

There’s another group of gluten-free converts: those who blame gluten for a wide range of medical conditions. There is evidence of an overlap between celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, particularly type 1 diabetes. And celiac disease sometimes affects the brain and nerves. But based on what is currently known, it is a big leap to blame gluten for autism, to cite one example, and an even bigger jump to prescribe gluten-free eating as a treatment for it.

Until you need to avoid gluten, you probably don’t realize how ubiquitous it is, notes the Harvard Health Letter. It is used as a thickening agent and filler in everything from ketchup to ice cream. And even when gluten isn’t an ingredient, it may inadvertently get into a food.

Gluten-free diets have traditionally depended on starch from corn, rice, and potatoes. Now nutritionists are encouraging people with celiac disease to eat foods made with unconventional, but nutritionally well-rounded, substitutes, including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff—the “super six”—which are high in fiber and vitamins.

Read the full-length article: "Getting out the gluten"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • Getting out the gluten
  • Calcium curious
  • The principles of conservative prescribing
  • By the way, doctor: Will Levitra overcome the problems caused by finasteride?
  • More questions about calcium answered
  • Alternatives to taking pills

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.