By Omar Shamout

If you didn't know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking a "gluten" was the muscle you flex while doing squats and lunges in the gym. In fact, gluten is a grain protein found in wheat, rye, oats, and barley that acts as a sort of glue holding the flour together, and providing structure. Sounds like a good thing, yet a quick visit to the diet book section of reveals so many "gluten-free" guides that you'd think it was as evil as trans fat or MSG. So what's the big deal over such a tiny little protein that performs such a noble function? Let's break down the substance into an easily digestible diet of what, why, and how.

What's the problem with gluten?

Unfortunately, about 1 percent of the world's population (roughly 1 out of every 133 people) suffers from a genetic gluten intolerance known as celiac disease, making it the world's most prevalent autoimmune disorder. Those affected with the condition suffer severe abdominal pain and discomfort when tiny, nutrient-absorbing projectiles in the small intestine known as villi come into contact with gluten, leaving them damaged and unable to function properly. Often, this intolerance leads to prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. Yikes! However, many carriers show no symptoms of the disease at all, and the only way to be diagnosed properly is through blood tests and an intestinal biopsy. Celiac disease should not be confused with a wheat allergy, where symptoms such as hives and itchiness recede once the allergen leaves the system.

How do I cure celiac disease?

The only known cure for celiac disease is a 100 percent gluten-free diet. Naturally, this means getting rid of many of our favorite starchy foods. To lessen the blow, celiac sufferers are entitled to a tax deduction on the extra cost incurred when buying gluten-free foods. In this economy, that could really come in handy!

What are the other medical benefits of a gluten-free diet?

In recent years, people without an intolerance have begun to take up a gluten-free lifestyle in an effort to lose weight. Others have put their faith in what is currently anecdotal evidence claiming that the omission of gluten improves conditions including but not limited to joint pain, osteoporosis, diabetes types 1 and 2, and neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, and autism. However, these cases are awaiting detailed medical studies, so until those take place, there is no conclusive evidence to support the gluten connection to these illnesses.

Why are people without diagnosed medical problems going gluten free?

A large number of people have chosen to go gluten free without a medical reason, and swear by the benefits they experience on a daily basis, including increased energy and brain function, and fewer aches and pains. Whatever your motivation, it is crucial to maintain a balanced and well-rounded diet to avoid eliminating essential vitamins from your nutritional intake. For instance, it may be tempting to stop eating bread altogether, but starch-rich foods contain vital nutrients like B vitamins and fiber, which prevent the onset of other health problems such as anemia, nerve damage,5 high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and irritable bowels.

How do I go about it?

Dieting should never be done on a whim, because you could be doing yourself more harm than good without even knowing it. If you want to substitute rice, corn, or potato-based products in favor of wheat and oats, just be sure to compensate your vitamin intake in other ways, such as supplements. For those serious about making the commitment to this lifestyle change, a comprehensive list of safe, questionable, and forbidden foods can be found in the book Gluten-Free for a Healthy Life by noted celiac dietician Kimberly A. Tessmer, RD, LD.

Why now?

Making the switch to gluten-free is easier than ever to do. Supply seems to have caught up with the increased public demand for gluten-free, well, everything. Food and beverage companies are now producing a wide array of sans-gluten products, including pizza, ice cream, and yes, even beer!

What's the bottom line?

While the jury may still be out on the long-term effects of a gluten-free diet for non-celiacs, it is quite possible to live and thrive without gluten as long as you consult a doctor or dietician first and plan out a well-balanced diet that doesn't ignore any of the essential food groups, including carbohydrates. If you think you might have celiac disease, do not self-diagnose, because your symptoms might be the result of a different illness altogether. As with anything in life, don't start because it's trendy, but rather because you've tried it out safely, and are satisfied with the results.