Life's Little Mysteries

What's a Gluten-Free Diet?

Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat and barley, and is known to cause inflammation in the intestines of people with celiac disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

People with celiac disease need to be on a gluten-free diet, since ingesting . In people with this disease, eating foods containing gluten damages the lining of the small intestine for these people, according to the National Institutes of Health. In healthy peopleindividuals, the inside of the small intestine is lined with finger-like projections called villi. The main function of these villi is to increase the surface area of the small intestine (a bumpy surface has a greater area than a smooth surface of the same size) so that the nutrients in food can be better absorbed by the body.

In people with celiac disease, gluten irritates the lining of the small intestine andalso causes the immune system to attack the villi. Over time, the villi can be damaged or destroyed, and the inside of the small intestines are left more flattened and smooth than they should be. This often means that they body can no longer absorb enough nutrients from food. Nutrients pass through the digestive tract and are excreted with the body's waste, and the person can suffer malnutrition, according to WebMD.

Foods containing gluten are common. Bread, cereal and pasta are among the foods that people with celiac disease need to forgo, unless they have been specially formulated to be gluten-free.

Although some have suggested that the gluten-free diet may help alleviate the signs of autism in children, several scientific studies have now shown that putting on children with autism spectrum disorders on the diet does not improve their behaviors.

Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.