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Gluten free 101: What you need to know

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Updated: 3/19 7:50 pm

(BPT) - You've probably been hearing a lot about gluten. Maybe a friend has gone gluten-free or a family member has been diagnosed with celiac disease or been advised to avoid gluten. So, what exactly is gluten? Is it something you should give up too?

Gluten is a protein that is most commonly found in wheat, barley and rye. It comes in several forms, like flour, and exists in many foods including pizza, pasta, breads and baked goods. For those who have sensitivity to gluten, it can be hard to avoid. The Center for Celiac Research estimates that 18 million people (or 6 percent of the population) may suffer from gluten intolerance. The severity of a person's gluten sensitivity is measured by the Sensitive Enteropathy scale, and can range from slight allergic reactions to more serious conditions, like Celiac disease, that require a person to eliminate gluten all together.

How do you know if you should avoid gluten? If you don't have gluten sensitivity, it isn't necessary to remove gluten from your diet. Keep in mind a gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss diet. But if you experience symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, digestive issues or Keratosis Pilaris (better known as 'chicken skin' on the back of your arms) after eating certain foods, you may have sensitivity to gluten and could potentially benefit from reducing or removing it from your diet. However, you should first consult a doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.

However you eat - gluten free or not - a healthy diet starts by considering quantity, quality, nutritional balance (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and variety, with the goal of making sure your body gets all the essential vitamins and minerals it needs. For those who are avoiding gluten, the good news is that with the rise in people avoiding gluten, availability of gluten-free products has also increased, making it easier to avoid gluten. However, many food companies are adding ingredients or adjusting the formulation to make the gluten-free food offerings taste more appealing and losing important nutrients along the way, so it is important to look at the types of gluten-free foods you are eating.

"If you are reducing or removing gluten from your diet, you should consider that the quality of the gluten-free ingredients in the foods you choose to eat plays as much of a role in your results as what you choose not to eat (like gluten),' says Ashley Koff, R.D., who is a spokesperson for Nature's Path. 'For optimal health, I recommend eating foods that are organic, which are produced without toxic chemicals and genetically modified ingredients (or GMOs), and to avoid ingredients that are 'chemistry lab projects', such as artificial colors and sweeteners.'

What can you do to avoid gluten in your diet?

* Learn to read labels. Common forms of gluten, such as wheat, barley and rye, are easy to spot but avoiding these products can be challenging since wheat is often labeled by other names. Avoid anything with bulgar, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina and spelt. Do your research so you know exactly what to avoid when reading labels or a menu. If you have questions, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness is a credible resource and can help guide you through the process of going gluten free.

* Beware of hidden gluten. Gluten is in many products that you might not expect like condiments, sauces and drinks. For example, raw meat is gluten free, however, processed meats - hot dogs, sausages and deli meats - often add flour (which contains gluten) as filler or to change the texture of the product.

* Eat organic. By choosing gluten-free foods that are also organic, you can avoid consuming pesticides and chemicals. This is important for everyone but especially those with an auto-immune disorder like Celiac disease. Companies like Nature's Path offer organic, Non-GMO Project Verified and certified gluten free easy breakfast and snack options like cereals and granola bars.

* Get creative. Giving up your favorite foods can be a frustrating, but with a little time and creativity, you won't even notice a difference - except in the way you feel. Don't be afraid to try different combinations and new recipes.

It's OK to have questions about gluten-free diets and making the right food choices for you and your family. The first step is speaking to a registered dietician or doctor if you think you or a family member has a gluten intolerance. There are many products to choose from, but do your research and choose products like Nature's Path, that are organic and Non-GMO.

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