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July 17, 2014
Jackie Fishman

What runs through your mind when you see the words “gluten-free” plastered on your favorite bag of chips in the store? Do you wonder if something inside the bag has changed?

“Gluten-free” products are filling the market now that the diet has become popular. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley. But gluten intolerance and celiac disease, a more serious genetic condition, are not new problems, according to Karen Hawkins, a nutritionist with the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community & Family Policy.

What is new, she said, is that some people are giving up gluten simply to try to lose weight. However, eating sensibly and regular physical activity are more likely to help you get thinner, Hawkins said. “Eliminating gluten from one’s diet is … primarily for individuals with a gluten-intolerance or celiac disease.”

“If you think you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, talk with your doctor before following a gluten-free diet,“ she cautioned, "since it means giving up bread, pasta and cereal - foods that contain valuable fiber, vitamins and minerals. Going gluten-free also requires meal planning and careful label reading to help you choose a well-balanced diet.”

At the same time, gluten-free foods cost more. The extra cost is not really necessary unless you have been diagnosed with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

“Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which people can't eat gluten because it will damage their small intestine,” she explained. “Gluten … is found mainly in foods, but may also be in other products like medicines, vitamins and supplements, lip balm and even the glue on stamps and envelopes.”

According to Hawkins, celiac disease affects people differently. One person might have weight loss, diarrhea and abdominal pain, while another may be irritable or depressed. Irritability is one of the most common symptoms of celiac disease in children. Some people have no symptoms.

Other signs to look for include: weight loss, anemia, bloating, confusion and infertility. People with Type 1 diabetes, a thyroid condition or Sjogren’s syndrome should be tested periodically for the disease. It can develop at any age.

Blood tests can help your doctor diagnose the disease. A biopsy of the small intestine is usually done to confirm celiac disease. The only treatment is a diet free of gluten.

“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” also known as “gluten intolerance,” causes the body to create a stress response that usually includes some of the same symptoms common among those with celiac disease.

Hawkins said that if you think you might be gluten intolerant, look for these key signs: confusion, depression, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain and chronic fatigue.

If you see a doctor, you need to know what questions to ask. Go to your primary care doctor first and be prepared to share symptoms and give some family history. You may want to request to be tested.

She explained that it is unclear if people are gluten sensitive throughout their life or just intermittently. Sometimes people actually have sensitivity to short-chain carbohydrates, which may be one reason they think they are gluten intolerant. These carbohydrates are found in apples, peaches, pears and milk and can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and diarrhea because they ferment in the gut.

“We think that our gut is supposed to be quiet,” said Hawkins, but part of a healthy digestive system is some gas, and it is okay to have some constipation. Gas and occasional changes in your bathroom habits is normal. Adding probiotics and fermented foods to one’s diet is important to maintain a healthy digestive system.”