The ‘Gluten-Free’ Debate

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No fat, low carb, high fiber. Now you can add gluten-free to the list. The labels are everywhere.

Is it a fad, or is gluten intolerance really on the rise?

It depends on who you ask. Some physicians and researchers still don’t believe gluten sensitivity exists. But for those who claim to be gluten intolerant, they’ll tell you a different story.

On one recent afternoon at Veda Morgan’s home in Arkadelphia, she showed us her gluten-free cooking techniques with biscuits, fried chicken and brownies with extra chocolate chips. The only thing missing from her recipes was flour.

“It’s a whole new way of cooking and it’s also healthier,” she says.

No flour, no barley, no wheat.

For 10 years now, Veda has been completely gluten-free.

“At first, it was sad. My whole life, I had cooked. Not just cooked, but rolls and homemade breads,” she explains.

The dietary change followed more than a decade of pain and suffering for the 66-year-old.

“My weight would go up and down. I would get really thin and I would have a lot of gastro issues. I would have diarrhea, bloating,” Veda recalls.

An one point, she weighed only 91 pounds. She spent 15 years visiting doctors, undergoing tests and even made a trip to Harvard Medical School.

Finally, in 2003, after an intestinal biopsy in Little Rock, Veda was diagnosed with celiac disease, an immune reaction from the protein gluten, found in wheat and many other grains.

About one in 130 people have the condition. Studies show it’s four times more common now than 50 years ago.

“Actually, I am seeing a lot of that in my practice is middle aged women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, for some reason develop gluten intolerance,” says Dr. Meenakshi Budhraja, a gastroenterologist.

Dr. Budhraja says true celiac is relatively easy to diagnose with a blood test. The grey area comes with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, she says.

“Gluten sensitivity is something that is much more common and it has only recently been recognized by the medical profession,” the doctor explains. “Gluten sensitivity is much harder to pin down. Only because there is no test for it.”

Patients who claim to be gluten sensitive complain of many of the same symptoms as celiacs:

  • gastro-intestinal problems
  • fatigue
  • eczema
  • head and joint aches
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • infertility in women

“For gluten sensitivity, the symptoms are only in hindsight. Once you go off of gluten then you think, oh, these symptoms must have been from gluten,” says Dr. Budhraja. She cautions against going gluten-free without getting checked first because she says it could result in a false negative for celiac.

“You really need to be sure of your diagnosis. Because if you are young and your whole life is ahead of you, you want to be sure that you are on the right diet for the rest of your life,” she explains.

While many questions remain about gluten sensitivity, including the cause, and how many people may suffer from the condition, marketing of foods without gluten has exploded to a billion-dollar industry. Even restaurants are profiting from the trend. Those with celiac disease, like Veda, are grateful for the options.

“Now some of the flours I use, you can use them interchangeably with the other flours. You do not taste the difference. I can make them for other people and they don’t know,” she says. “I could wave banners about how much better it is for people to eat that way.”

Lunch with Veda was delicious and you really couldn’t tell a big difference.

Dr. Budhraja says those who suffer from disorders such as diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, and even ADHD and autism in children, should be tested. You could very well be gluten intolerant.

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