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Gluten-free: ‘Not just another crazy diet’

by the Siskiyou Daily News

If we really are what we eat, then one out of 100 Americans with celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is in trouble.


At a rough estimate, nearly 500 Siskiyou County residents could suffer from their genetic allergy to foods containing gluten – specifically wheat, rye and barley. Symptoms include seemingly inexplicable stomach distress, eczema, sinus infections, headaches, asthma, weight loss and fatigue. Avoiding wheat is difficult, but a wheat-free diet is the only cure for the disease.


Wheat-gluten allergy support groups in Mount Shasta and Yreka provide assistance.


“Because you must make lifelong changes in your diet, you need the support of doctors and a good support group,” Victoria Cadena, facilitator of the south county group, said. “Gluten is everywhere, but unless you read the food labels, you’d never know it. One goal of the group is to help people learn to see where it is.”
Wheat can be found in most breads and cereals, pastas, cookies, cakes, baked goods and snacks made with wheat flour, according to WebMD Medical Reference. Additionally many processed foods, including ice cream, chicken nuggets, doughnuts, flour tortillas and even catsup may include wheat flour. Sometimes wheat is added as a thickener, so gluten may be found in beer, beverage mixes, candy, salad dressings, soy sauce and canned vegetables.


“Reading the labels of food is key,” Cadena reiterated, “but there is more than just looking for wheat. Gluten is a protein found in rye and barley, too. The tricky part is recognizing hidden gluten. Unfortunately, ‘wheat-free’ doesn’t always mean ‘gluten-free.’ Barley and rye can trigger a reaction, too. A quarter-teaspoon of flour with gluten causes a reaction. It’s amazing!”


Hidden sources of gluten include everything from bleu cheese to spice mixes. The list of potentially difficult foods is pages long.


“Generally, people don’t know they have celiac disease, “ Cadena said. “It’s usually a combination of factors that make people explore it. They’ll have sinus infections, headaches, stomach problems, rashes that just don’t ‘go away.’” Celiac disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged from eating gluten and other proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats.
“About 10 years ago my sister had a lot of stomach problems. I just happened to attend an Irish conference in Seattle on gluten intolerance. As I listened, I thought of my sister, so I sent her the workshop info. She decided to try the diet and she recovered.”


According to the Mayo Clinic, the disorder is most common in Caucasians and those of European ancestry. Women are affected more commonly than men.


“I looked at my health, and thought I was OK,” Cadena added. “Two years later I discovered an article that described a rash caused by celiac disease. I’d had this rash since childhood. Rather than be tested, I changed my diet to a gluten-free one and the rash disappeared.”


The support group has several goals, beginning with education.


“It’s important people know what the disease is and what it isn’t. We’ll share articles, show some informative videos, and discuss information and symptoms.”


The group will also provide support for those diagnosed with the disease.


“Many times, doctors will say, ‘Go to a nutritionist,’ then hand you a list of what you can’t eat. They don’t give ideas about what you can have, and where and how to find it and prepare it. Our group will help with all of that,” she noted.


Recipe-sharing and tips for shopping are also part of the group’s agenda.


“There is a lot you can eat. There are actually more grains that you can eat than you can’t. Quinoa, millet, rice, soy, beans, corn, potato. And of course you can have all the normal parts of a healthy diet – fresh fruits and veggies, meats and milk. There’s an exciting new world of possibilities. We can go on shopping field trips to see what’s available locally and also teach people how to shop online.”


Connecting with others and talking is one of the most important parts of the group, according the Cadena.
“Change takes time, and sometimes it’s overwhelming, so sharing helps. The group helps people discover they can live a perfectly healthy life without gluten!”


The south county wheat-gluten-free support group meets the second Thursday of the month from 6-8 p.m. at Mercy Medical Center. Those interested may contact Cynthia Henderson or Cadena at 938-2637.
“My husband will be there to provide support for men,” Cadena said. “He’s 80 years old and was sick all the time until he treated his gluten intolerance! It’s not just another crazy diet – it really works!”
There is a north county group that meets the third Wednesday of each month in the Fairchild Medical Center conference room in Yreka. Interested individuals can contact Cadena at the number above or Sherry Stanfield at 842-2662.