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Why Is Gluten Bad for Me?

By Mary Garrett ; Updated August 14, 2017

Gluten is a protein belonging to the grains barley, wheat and rye. It is a stretchy protein that captures carbon dioxide released from yeast, causing breads to rise. While gluten is not a problem for everyone, for people with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, gluten can cause health problems. Unfortunately, removing these grains from the diet is not easy. Gluten is used in many consumer products other than food, including vitamins, prescription drugs, malt, lipstick and toothpaste.

Celiac Disease

Roughly 2 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten. According to the American Diabetes Association, 10 percent of Type 1 diabetics also have celiac disease. Gluten can damage the small intestine, prohibiting the absorption of vital nutrients, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies. Abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea can occur, but some people experience no symptoms. Celiac disease may express itself in other ways, such as anemia, depression, joint pain, muscle cramps, rash, tingling feet and legs, osteoporosis or upset stomach. Vitamin deficiencies may result in fatigue, oily stools, weight loss and bone loss. Because the symptoms of celiac disease mimic other digestive disorders, diagnosis can be difficult. Methods for testing for celiac disease include blood screening and intestinal biopsy. There is no cure for celiac disease; the best treatment is to avoid gluten.

Gluten Intolerance

People with celiac disease have high blood levels of specific antibodies. However, some people may experience the digestive symptoms after eating gluten but test negative for celiac disease and have no intestinal damage. This condition is categorized as a gluten intolerance. Reducing or removing gluten from your diet helps avoid symptoms.

Dermatitis Herpetiformis

Another condition caused by gluten is dermatitis herpetiformis, which affects about one-fourth of people diagnosed with celiac disease. This condition involves a itchy skin rash with blisters, typically occurring on the buttocks, elbows and knees. This condition does not always accompany digestive symptoms. Diagnosis is confirmed by blood test or skin biopsy. Treatment includes antibiotics for the rash and the removal of gluten from the diet.

Gluten-Free Foods

Grains that do not contain gluten include rice, corn, quinoa, grits, cornmeal, buckwheat, amaranth and arrowroot. Unbreaded meats, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, wine and most dairy items do not contain gluten, but you must always check the label. If you are unsure, visit the product's website or contact the manufacturer. Many manufacturers label products that are gluten-free; a proposed FDA standard for gluten labeling is on the horizon at the time of publication.

Foods to Avoid

Breads are obvious foods to avoid, but other food products containing gluten are not so obvious. These may include beer, soups, imitation seafood, chips, salad dressing, soy sauce, gravy and some lunch meats. Be especially wary of processed foods, as gluten may be an added filler. Check the label, many products that typically contain gluten, such as beer, are being processed gluten-free and are labeled as such.

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