Gluten, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “is a mixture of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of these grains.” Gluten-free refers to a diet, meal or food item that excludes gluten – for reasons such as health problems like celiac disease, or for certain food allergies including to wheat. Others may pursue a gluten-free diet for other, personal reasons much like they might be vegan or vegetarian – for their own health peace of mind, to possibly lose weight, or just because it makes them feel better, or will help them live longer.
In terms of specific reasons to try a gluten-free diet, let’s look at celiac disease, which affects up to 3 million people in the United States alone. This occurs when the natural defense system in a person’s body reacts negatively to gluten, essentially by attacking the lining of the small intestine. An unhealthy intestinal lining inhibits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients; ultimately this could result in conditions including anemia, osteoporosis, and other ailments including diabetes, and intestinal cancers. Celiac disease is a serious condition and a strict gluten-free diet is the only effective treatment found so far.
The gluten-free diet basically has allowed and disallowed foods. A good list is offered by the Mayo Clinic. For instance, allowed foods for the gluten-free diet include beans, seeds and nuts in their natural form (meaning, unprocessed), fresh eggs, fresh meats, fish and poultry, fruits and vegetables and most dairy products. Many grains and starches are acceptable, including amaranth, flax and quinoa. Foods and drinks to always avoid in a gluten-free diet include barley (and anything involving malt), rye, wheat, and a cross between wheat and rye called triticale. Remember that avoiding wheat can be difficult due to the use of various names for wheat, like farina, durum flour, kamut, graham flour and spelt.