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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

June 2013

 

By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month

 


Saying Goodbye to Wheat: Is avoiding wheat just another fad?

EAT NO WHEAT!

That is the core, draconian commandment of a gluten-free diet. A prohibition that excises foods like breads, pasta, cakes, pastries and some cereals.

For the approximately one in 100 people in the UK who have a serious condition called celiac disease, that is an indisputably wise medical directive. And the disorder affects people all over the world.

Now, according to a recent report in the New York Times International Weekly, medical experts largely agree there is a condition related to gluten other than celiac. In 2011 a panel of celiac experts convened in Oslo and settled on a medical term for this malady: non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What they still do not know: how many people have gluten sensitivity, what its long-term effects are, or even how to reliably identify it.

The definition is less a diagnosis than a description – someone who does not have celiac, but whose health improves on a gluten-free diet and worsens again if gluten is eaten. It could be even more than one illness.

“We have absolutely no clue at this point,” said Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center.

Many advocates of gluten-free diets warn that non-celiac sensitivity is a wide, unseen epidemic undermining the health of millions of people. They believe that avoiding gluten – a composite of starch and proteins found in certain grassy grains like wheat, barley and rye – gives them energy and alleviates chronic ills.

I first encountered gluten fourteen years ago when a nutritionist advised a wheat-free and dairy-free diet for my digestive problems. The digestive ills did disappear, also my blood-sugar lows and fatigue in mid-morning and mid- afternoon,

At that time there was little publicity about the effects of gluten. I had to search for the gluten-free foods, available only in a few health food stores. I grew tired of the heavy rice bread (and expensive) and the dark dense bitter German rye - rye was okay then. There was spinach pasta and some tasteless gluten-free biscuits. Today, every supermarket has a dedicated gluten- free section and many more slightly tastier products.

I realised that the popularity of gluten- free diets had reached the most unlikely of converts when travelling last year with my good friend Alice on a cruise. As we entered the dining salon, she advised the steward that she required a gluten-free breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This was my good friend who always ate whatever was served and had scoffed at those of us who might be addicts of so-called health foods. When staying with her I was always reluctant to ask for my soya milk and wheat-free cereal, fearful of her disapproval.

Alice is the athletic one of us – still at 78 playing tennis, riding horseback, climbing mountains. But lately she had found her energy levels down and persistent aches and pains more troublesome. She’s thrilled that gluten-free, her energy has returned, her aches less frequent and a digestion problem resolved.

As with most nutrition controversies, most everyone agrees on the underlying facts. Wheat entered the human diet only about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture.

The primary proteins in wheat gluten are glutenin and gliadin, and gliadin contains repeating patterns of amino acids that the human digestive system cannot break down. (Gluten is the only substance that contains these proteins.)

People with celiac have one or two genetic mutations that somehow, when pieces of gliadin course through the gut, cause the immune system to attack the walls of the intestine. That, in turn, causes fingerlike structures called villi that absorb nutrients on the inside of the intestines to atrophy, and the intestines can become leaky, wreaking havoc. Symptoms include abdominal pain, excess wind, bloating, diarrhoea, tiredness or weakness, anaemia.

What worries doctors is that the problem seems to be growing. Some blame the wheat, as some varieties now contain higher levels of gluten, because gluten helps provide the springy inside and crusty outside desirable in bread.

Celiac experts urge people to not self-diagnose. Should they actually have celiac, the tests to diagnose it become unreliable if one is not eating gluten.

For more information on gluten and celiac disease go to: www.patient.co.uk/health/coeliacdisease.


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