Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Living Gluten Free: Raising Awareness

Do you have 133 friends on Facebook - or more? If so, at least one of them is likely to have celiac disease. Once considered a rare autoimmune disorder, celiac disease now affects 1 out of every 133 Americans, a ratio that may be even higher if you include wheat and gluten allergies and sensitivities that are not diagnosed as celiac.

According to the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago, 97% of people with celiac are undiagnosed: "The number of Americans with celiac disease would fill 936 cruise ships. Passengers on 908 of the ships won’t know they have it." That's an astounding percentage of undiagnosed patients. One of the problems is that more than 300 symptoms have been associated with celiac which may impact people in a variety of ways. In some cases, celiac may cause abdominal bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, or failure to thrive, in others it may manifest itself in the symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, or unexplained infertility.

What is celiac disease? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), celiac disease is "a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food." Although there is some discussion that celiac is a genetic disorder, its rapid growth raises some eyebrows. A 2009 ABC News piece interviewed Dr. Joseph Murray, who "attributes the increase in the disease to environmental factors. "It has to be a change in the environment because it's happened over 50 years and human genetics don't change that fast," he explained. Others have more specifically linked celiac to genetically modified foods (GMOs).

Whatever the cause or frequency of the disease, you likely know someone who needs to follow a gluten free diet. The diagnoses can feel devastating at first. No bread? No pasta? No cupcakes, birthday cake, or hamburger buns? And what about pizza?

Fortunately, the gluten-free market is growing exponentially. But it's not all good news. Many of the common "replacement" foods offered in gluten-free versions are far from health-promoting. They are highly processed and refined, with added sugars, fats, and flavorings. For celiacs and those intolerant to gluten they may seem to be a godsend. But the real godsend is in the lifestyle change - a change that makes you look at food and health more carefully and understand its connection. Celiac is just such a wake-up call for many of us. And the journey to a healthy gluten-free lifestyle will make you appreciate whole, real food even more.

So you can't eat the way you used to. What can you eat? Sweet, ripe watermelon. Seared, juicy steak. Roasted herbed turkey. Creamy mashed potatoes. Rich, dense risotto. Luscious chocolate mousse. The more closely you stick to whole foods and the more you learn to prepare and cook them, the better your gluten-free journey will be. Don't know what to feel someone with celiac? You don't need to run off to the nearest health food store to find a specialty item. Look in your fridge or pantry, shop your local farmer's market. Make some organic chicken with lemon and herbs. Toss some asparagus in olive oil and salt and roast them in the oven. Put on a pot of brown rice. Simple, real, basic. And you just might feel better without the gluten too!

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