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Understanding Celiac and Gluten Intolerance

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Here at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating we do NOT endorse or promote any particular diet or nutritional lifestyle. We do highly encourage that each person openly explores the wide variety of nutritional approaches and dietary strategies that are available to them. We see nutrition as an ever changing journey. We believe that a healthy relationship with food and a well functioning metabolism is possible when we can each be open to what works best for ourselves, and others. We believe there’s a nugget of wisdom to be found in just about any diet that’s been designed with care in mind for people and planet.

As the desire for a healthier lifestyle becomes more important in the lives of our family and friends, it’s no surprise that more people are adopting a gluten-free lifestyle in order to eliminate many of their health problems. Many researchers, scientists, dietitians and health coaches have begun to research the benefits of gluten-free living to help their clients increase energy, destroy bloating and improve chronic health issues.

These days, just about every health store has shelves full of gluten-free alternatives. Though many people are becoming more and more familiar with the term “gluten free,” as awareness in popular culture grows, this doesn’t mean that everyone knows exactly what it is and why people avoid it.

So for those who still aren’t sure what it is exactly, gluten is an active protein, which is actually composed of two different proteins: gliadin (a prolamin protein) and glutenin (a glutelin protein) that form a glue-like substance. It’s naturally occuring in wheat, rye, spelt, kamut, barley, and their derivatives. You’ll recognize its work in giving bread and baked goods that toothsome, chewy texture, and pizza dough its stretch and elasticity.

This protein is extremely difficult for many people to digest, and thereby causes a range of issues: irritation in the small intestine, ulcers, inflammation, eczema, achy muscles and joints, behavior and neurological issues, migraines, digestive distress (think IBS), malabsorption, infertility, extreme fatigue, thyroid conditions, and unnecessary weight loss.

Many who decide to initially avoid gluten as an experiment and find they feel so much better without it, often learn that they suffer from Celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten intolerance. The percentage of our population affected by Celiac and gluten intolerance has been increasing. As medical science comes to learn more about the ins and outs about the connections between the gut and overall health, we find gluten coming up again and again. Studies show that more than 20 million people (in the US alone) are prone to issues with gluten. If someone in your family has trouble with gluten, you’re a third more likely to have problems with it too.

Need a primer? Continue reading below to learn more and whether or not it may be best for you to say adios to gluten.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease, also known as Celiac Sprue, is an autoimmune digestive condition that damages the villi of the small intestine. This interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. An auto-immune condition is nothing to ignore or be taken lightly. Such disorders occur when the body fails to tell the difference between what is you and what is not. In response, your body makes antibodies to attack your own body’s tissues, organs, or cells.

For those with celiac, it all comes down to the small intestine and the GALT (Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue) where the body houses 80% of its entire immune system. When these systems become compromised, food absorption and the ability to process nutrients become likewise impaired, with dangerous consequences. Untreated Celiac disease can be life threatening, therefore, for some people, gluten-free living is literally a lifesaver.

Sometimes it seems that we forget what eating food is meant to do: it builds our bodies and brains and provides us energy to live and fully enjoy our life. If the small intestine is no longer capable of absorbing nutrients, then the entire body will begin to show signs of malfunction, or dis-ease.

What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance, while not lethal, is still an equally worthy topic to address. In this case, an individual may experience one or more symptoms due to their ingestion of gluten. Side effects of gluten intolerance include energy fatigue, stomach bloat, gas, dizziness, headaches, mood swings and joint aches. But the truth is that most people are so used to feeling bloated, puffy, achy and tired, they believe it’s normal and are often shocked at the changes when they remove this “edible glue” from their diet. Though these look very similar to Celiac disease side effects, their degrees range in intensity.

Feeling tired, drained, inflamed and generally in poor health is not normal and it’s certainly not something you should have to endure daily. Perhaps you’ve already passed “the Celiac test” with your health care provider, but for those with this sensitivity, uncommon to experiences problems after eating gluten. This is a good opportunity to exercise your body wisdom. Where does your body need you to go?

What can I do?

After being diagnosed with Celiac or gluten sensitivity, the solution is actually relatively easy. Simply eat whole foods that do not contain gluten. You’ll be surprised how many options there truly are. But be sure to stay away from process foods that so often contain fillers, fake food-stuffs and hidden sources of gluten. And be aware of cross-contamination.

Educate your mind and your palate. Broaden your horizon and familiarize yourself with other delicious grains that are gluten free, such as rice (all kinds), quinoa, corn, teff, amaranth, and gluten-free oats, to name a few. You’re free to enjoy fruits and vegetables, pulses and legumes, dairy, meat and fish. This does not need to be about deprivation.

It’s merely a change in perspective. Going gluten-free does not mean grocery shopping and meal planning need to be difficult. However, even in an effort to ditch gluten, and this doesn’t mean you you should fully embrace pprocessed gluten free products as a steady replacement.

The reality is that many people enduring the switch don’t take into account how much nutrition they’re losing by simply cutting out the whole grains that contain gluten. Eating GF bread made from tapioca starch may feel more like bread, but there’s little benefit in making these kinds of foods your mainstay.

Giving them up may actually benefit you immensely in the long run. This really is an opportunity to explore new flavors, textures and cultures through food.

What can I expect?

At the beginning of your gluten free lifestyle, you may experience a change in energy depending on what foods you decide to eat in place of gluten. The best approach when adopting a gluten free lifestyle is to continue to keep your carbohydrate intake steady so your body still has plenty of fuel for energy.

As the first week progresses, signs of bloating, energy fatigue and gas should dissipate noticeably.  Of course, depending on how much gluten you were previously eating, it could take more time for your body to detox – some say it takes six months for the body to completely clean out the gluten “residue” – but no matter what, you’ll start to reap the benefits with a little time.

One of the most important aspects to be aware of is your Mind Body Relationship during this time. You may notice an increase in attitude, as well as energy, which can be directly correlated with the exclusion of gluten. You can also feel trapped, depressed, and long for the food life that is no longer available to you. This is a good opportunity to see what’s really behind our cravings and desire for foods that may do us more harm than good.

Don’t jump onto the gluten free bandwagon by filling your shopping cart with gluten free alternative products just yet. Gluten free foods will not taste like gluten filled foods and many of them are likewise filled with low nutrient starches and sugar. Often times, those first adopting a gluten free lifestyle load up on gluten free breads, bagels, cereals and candy.

This is basically swapping one disease for another. Enjoy everything in moderation, including gluten free products! Don’t feel restricted, but really dive deep into natural foods for the beginning of your gluten free diet so you can really identify your body’s response to these healthy foods. Giving your body the time and space to heal is imperative, and to do so, eating real natural foods are your best bet. Keep your focus on eating plenty of gluten-free grains, vegetables, fruits, fats and grass-fed meats and wild fish.

After some time, say three weeks, or three months -take note of the side effects you experienced before going gluten free and consider how they’re responding to the change.

  • Maybe you’re noticing your acne fade away with time?
  • Is our tummy feels more at ease – and is your bloating gone?
  • Do you have so much energy that coffee is unnecessary?
  • Do you notice your mood is more playful and less stressed the majority of the time?

When it comes to your body and your health, only you can know for sure what makes you feel best. Enjoy the process of evolving nutritionally. Play “scientist” and use your body as an opportunity to listen deeply and bring awareness to your mind-body experience of health. You may just free yourself from your worst health issues simply by eating real food that supports you on all levels, and most important, causes no harm.

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