How and Why Millions of Americans are Going Gluten-Free

by Janet Y. Rinehart
Chairman, Houston Celiac Support Group &  
Houston R.O.C.K. (Raising Our Celiac Kids)

        I bet you know someone in your family or circle of friends who can not eat wheat!  But is that all there is to it? I have been eating gluten free (GF) and helping other people who need the gluten-free diet for about 24 years.  I have seen a lot of positive changes over these years.

        Back then, ordinary people did not know what celiac disease was, and even the doctors thought Celiac Disease was rare. Now researchers know that celiac disease prevalence is at least 1 in 133 individuals, increasing to more than 1% of the worldwide population. When you include the number of Americans who have some form of gluten allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, the numbers run into the millions. Dr. Alessio Fasano, founder of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, estimates that 18 million Americans have some degree of gluten sensitivity. 

      Surviving on the GF diet is not so much about eliminating gluten but about replacing gluten with healthier, high-quality alternatives, about substituting a food that will heal you for a food that is toxic to your body. I have more detailed suggestions later in this article, first let's define Celiac Disease and Gluten Free living.
Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disorder where gluten damages the villi in the small intestine; the villi are the mechanism of absorption of nutrients. This malabsorption can affect any organ of the body.  Classic digestive symptoms are not as common now as are peripheral neuropathy, joint & bone pain, lack of concentration, children's behavior problems, onset of osteopenia or osteoporosis, weight gain, severe fatigue, anemia and other vitamin/mineral deficiencies, skin eruptions of dermatitis herpetiformis, development of other autoimmune disorders, and many others.  Certain blood tests and genetic tests can screen for the possibility. One must be eating gluten liberally in order to be tested correctly and reliably. There are no accurate tests yet for "gluten sensitivity."  The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet for life.

    Also, people with wheat/gluten allergy, gluten sensitivity, and gluten intolerance must adhere to a gluten-free diet.  This means abstaining from ingesting anything with wheat, barley (malt), rye and most commercial oats.  Most celiacs can use the new gluten-free oat versions, but not all.

        Back 24 years, a GF diet was a tremendous challenge.  It was very difficult to ascertain whether a food product contained gluten. There were too many nebulous terms that potentially could contain gluten.  We had to call manufacturers on everything! 


         Thank goodness, the FDA enacted a new labeling law in January 2006 that mandated all the top 8 allergens had to be on food labels in common terms:  milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.  We no longer have to fret over such terms as modified food starch or hydrolyzed protein.  Since we really are concerned about wheat in 90% to 95% of processed food items, reading labels has become much easier, although many ingredient labels are too tiny to read.  The FDA is supposed to give a definition of gluten free this fall so that manufacturers will be able to mark GF after testing. And most manufacturers have free 800 numbers to call their consumer relations department, if we are still confused.  But we continue to also scrutinize labels for oat flour, malt (barley), pastas, and soy sauce, etc. 

     Many people with celiac disease also have sensitivities to other food, unfortunately.  Commonly, lactose or casein (dairy) sensitivities may develop.  Although these other sensitivities tend not to disappear, adhering to a gluten-free diet may reduce in time their symptomatic effects in celiacs.

         Grocery shopping used to be a long, often frustrating, trip.  Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store yields naturally GF fresh fruit, veggies, meat, poultry and fish.  Although we still have to read every label, at least wheat is right on the ingredient labels!  Once we get used to the gluten-free lifestyle, we tend to have a regular repertoire of products and menus that we use in our family.  Current awareness has encouraged Whole Foods, H-E-B, and Kroger's to sell many gluten-free products, some more than others. 

        There is no reason to feel deprived on a gluten-free diet.  Many foods are obviously gluten free, "certified" gluten free, or available after good label reading. Gluten-free cakes, pies and cookies taste just like their regular counterparts.  However, GF breads are an acquired taste.  They are different and you just have to get used to the different taste if you want bread.  Find the brand you like. Bread taste and texture is getting better. More bakeries are adding more grains and fiber, which process makes for more nutrition.


        Specialty gluten-free bakeries are now found in Houston.  CAKES BY MONICA in Pasadena bakes specialty cakes and cookies, even decorated wedding cakes (281-998-2569).  GLUTEN-FREE HOUSTON (1014 Wirt Road, Suite 230,  713-784-7122) delivers their GF products to a lot of markets in the greater Houston area.  MARY'S GLUTEN FREE, (14641 Gladebrook Drive near FM 1960, 713/855-0365) also offers only gluten-free products.   PURE FOODS MARKET, formerly Healthy Pantry is in the Copperfield area (7710 Cherry Park Drive, 713-444-7627 or 281-858-6175). 

        Restaurant chefs are much more aware now of gluten-free needs and how to modify some of their menu items for us with food sensitivities.  Even when there is a gluten-friendly menu in the establishment, we still need to ask questions of a manager every time, especially about how they manage the cross-contamination problems in their kitchen. 

        Our Houston chapter has a compilation of over 100 pages of Restaurant Investigations, most with GF menu suggestions. We teach members how to read labels, shop, go out to eat, and travel as safely as possible.  We understand beginning a gluten-free diet is overwhelming at first.

        The best family resource about the gluten-free lifestyle is Danna Korn's KIDS WITH CELIAC DISEASE: a Family Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy, Gluten-Free Children. She is also the author of LIVING GLUTEN-FREE FOR DUMMIES. Danna encourages parents to let their kids take charge of their own diet as early as they can, but also to keep foods separated in the house for non-celiac siblings.  Cooking one main meal all gluten free is easier on the cook, too!

         We want you to be able to find good substitutes for those comfort foods and family recipes you are used to.  It takes Perseverance to stay knowledgeable in living gluten free. It takes Discipline to refuse the foods you wish you could still eat.  (But later it gets routine and you know you can make the gluten-free equivalent if you want.)  It takes Determination to press onward in your pursuit to live gluten free. But YOU are not alone!  Knowledge is power. Learn it, explore it, embrace it, live it and love it – the Gluten-free Lifestyle!

For more information, call 281-679-7608 or visit

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