Having special dietary needs is widely accepted these days. But if you frequently tell people you're sensitive to gluten, you're still likely to endure some serious insensitivity now and then.
I'm sure you know what I mean: someone you just met rolling her eyes when you explain why you're skipping bread, relatives proclaiming that nobody ever had a gluten problem back in the 70s, and so on.
There's been widespread acceptance for a while that celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder affecting about 1 in 133 people in the U.S. If you have celiac disease, your immune system mistakenly perceives gluten — the protein found in wheat, rye and barley — as a threat and attacks it. In the process, the small intestine gets damaged, which can lead to difficulty with nutrient absorption and eventual malnourishment. There's also widespread acceptance of wheat allergies, though the cause of their increasing prevalence is widely debated.
But for too long, far too many people have thought that gluten intolerance is "all in your head."
Fortunately, a new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) might help you get the respect you deserve.
They studied 59 patients believed to be gluten intolerant. For one week, half the participants were given a daily dose of gluten while the other half got a placebo. Then the researchers reversed who received the placebo and who received the gluten.
Participants — not knowing when they got gluten and when they got the placebo — reported significantly more severe symptoms during their week of ingesting gluten. These symptoms included abdominal bloating and pain, foggy mind and even depression.
The bottom line is that while gluten sensitivity doesn't damage the small intestine the way celiac disease does, it can make you feel miserable (causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, joint pain, depression and fatigue).
Right now, the only way to manage it is by following a gluten-free diet. Fortunately, as awareness of this disorder grows, so does the availability of gluten-free options. It's no longer unusual to see gluten-free breads, pizza crusts and cookies on menus and grocery store shelves.
Just be careful when you consume these gluten-free goodies, though, as they're often loaded with fat, sweeteners, and processed ingredients.
Of course, one study won't create scientific consensus on the validity of gluten intolerance, and it surely won't convince that skeptical relative.
Until we know the cause of gluten insensitivity or have a medical test to "prove" whether someone has the condition, the debate will go on. And scientists will continue to propose intriguing theories, such as that gluten sensitivity is really a matter of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) getting triggered by FODMAPs.
But while researchers keep seeking better answers and treatments, we can take heart that our symptoms are real, and avoiding gluten is worth the effort — and the occasional snarky comment that shows who's really intolerant.