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Is a Gluten-Free Diet Right for You?

Candidates include people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or those with a wheat allergy

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, July 19 (HealthDay News) -- Chances are you know at least one person who's given up eating gluten. Maybe you've even given it up yourself. But who can really benefit from a gluten-free diet?

"Gluten is one of the main proteins found in wheat, barley and rye," said Dr. Joseph Levy, division director of pediatric gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's actually a group of proteins and not a single component, but gluten is the general term."

In baking, it plays a key role. "Gluten is responsible for the way dough is able to rise when you put yeast in it," Levy explained. "It's the structure of gluten that makes baked goods light and crispy. If you try to cook with gluten-free flour it won't have the same airiness. The dough is heavier, and the finished product will be flat and heavy."

But though gluten might make for a flaky croissant, it can cause a number of problems for certain people.

Registered dietician Rachel Begun, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that three types of people may not be able to eat products containing gluten: people with celiac disease, people with gluten sensitivity or intolerance, and people with a wheat allergy.

"Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, and when gluten is eaten, the body triggers an attack on the intestines," Begun said. "Damage occurs over time, and nutrients can't be absorbed."

Levy said that "even tiny amounts of gluten trigger an immune-mediated attack on the lining of the bowel." For someone with celiac disease, "it's important that you don't have any exposure to gluten," he said.

One problem, though, is that people aren't always aware that they have celiac disease. In fact, a study published last year in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that almost 80 percent of people with celiac disease don't know they have it.

Celiac disease often has no symptoms for years, Begun said, and is often discovered because of the problems it creates, such as anemia or osteoporosis.

Another group of people who might benefit from forgoing gluten are those who have what's called gluten sensitivity. "We're just starting to recognize this non-celiac-related sensitivity to gluten," Levy said.

"When they eat gluten," he said, "they can have diarrhea or they may get bloated, nauseous, tired and achy." Begun added that people who are gluten-sensitive may also experience migraines and feel like they have a "foggy brain."

"Something is going on in the body that triggers these symptoms, but you don't see damage to the intestine," she said. "There's a lot of research going on now in this area, but we don't yet know if there are any long-term consequences of gluten sensitivity."

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