Why So Many People Are Going Gluten-Free—Should You?

Why So Many People Are Going Gluten-Free—Should You?

If you've ever polished off a fresh baguette or fought over that last slice of deep-dish pizza, you've eaten gluten. It's the healthy plant protein found in several grains that, among other baking feats, makes bread light, chewy, and irresistible. So you'd think it would be everybody's favorite nutrient. Nope. Instead, shunning gluten -- it's in wheat, rye, and barley, and often in oats -- has become the diet of the moment.

Why? Lots of people swear they feel 10 times better when they don't eat gluten, celebs included: Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, and Jenny McCarthy are all rumored to be gluten-free. Also, for certain people, avoiding gluten is a medical must: It does a number on their intestines. So could all those stomach cramps be caused by your morning bagel? Should you try going gluten-free? Here's the real what's what:

Some people can't tolerate gluten. Period. In them, gluten triggers an immune-system attack on the small intestine, also known as celiac disease. This disorder isn't that common, fortunately -- only about 1% of Americans (3 million people) have it -- but almost 97% of them are undiagnosed! Symptoms range from gas, pain, and bloating to fatigue, seizures, and depression. Over time, celiac disease can screw up digestion to the point of malnutrition. Self-test kits are sold online and can provide clues, and blood tests are the next step, but a definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy.

Some people seem sensitive to gluten. But "gluten sensitivity" is a medical gray area. There are no tests for it, and although problems -- migraines, skin breakouts, irritability, even autism -- have been blamed on it, doctors haven't found a clear link. If you suspect you're sensitive, before you put your toaster and pasta machine on eBay, try this: Go gluten-free for a few weeks to see if symptoms improve; then, add a bit of gluten back into your diet. If problems return, you may be on to something.

How to Try Going Gluten-Free
Most suspicious foods are easy to spot. They include anything with wheat -- bread, muffins, cookies, most other baked goods -- as well as foods made with several other grains: barley soups, ham on rye, anything with oats. But there are hidden sources, too. Gluten is used in soy sauce, beer, hot dogs, some ice creams, caramel flavoring, sausages, and foods seasoned with MSG. It's even in the adhesive on stamps and envelopes! So take a few other steps:

Read the fine print on labels. Switch from pasta to rice, Wheaties to corn flakes, couscous to quinoa, waffles to buckwheat pancakes (buckwheat isn’t actually wheat).

Give waiters the third degree (they're getting used to it): Ask if sauces, meat, and fish dishes are made with flour or bread crumbs. Ask if there's a thickener in soup, if the salad dressing is bottled, if caramel flavorings are used. All are iffy.

Make your favorite brownies using half rice flour and half tapioca flour. Dare your friends to know the difference.

Then, see how you feel. If your body has happily shifted into a new health gear, enjoy.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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