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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Linda Kellogg cooks chicken alfredo lasagna, a family favorite, in her home's kitchen on a recent Friday night in Bakersfield. Linda is allergic to gluten and now uses gluten-free flour and rice flour noodles in her cooking.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Linda Kellogg whisks gluten-free flour in to her roux while cooking chicken alfredo lasagna at home.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Linda Kellogg cooks chicken alfredo lasagna, a family favorite, in her home's kitchen on a recent Friday night in Bakersfield. Linda is allergic to gluten and now uses gluten-free flour and rice flour noodles in her cooking.

Linda Kellogg makes a mean alfredo chicken lasagna piled with layers of noodles and meat, smoothered with cheese and fragrant, creamy sauce.

Unexpected ingredients comprise the heaping dish. The flour in the white sauce is made from garbanzo beans and the brown noodles are fashioned from rice, not wheat.

“This is not a diet-friendly meal but it is gluten-free,” Kellogg said as she prepared the meal one Friday evening in May.

The elementary school teacher went gluten-free last summer after she said skin tests showed she had a multitude of allergies, including one to wheat. Kellogg felt almost immediate relief when she cut gluten out of her diet after years of rashes and upset stomachs.

“I didn’t have to eat and then wonder if I was going to have stomach pain,” she said.

Like Kellogg, more and more people appear to be banishing gluten from their diet. Nearly 30 percent of adults claimed to be cutting down or totally cutting it out as of January, according to The NPD Group, a market research company. The company said it’s the highest percentage of people curbing gluten since it began posing the question to consumers in 2009.

Several Bakersfield health care professionals said the trend holds true here as well.

Some people adopt a glutenless lifestyle hoping to lose weight or seeking relief from a variety of ailments. For people with celiac disease or an allergy to wheat, which pose serious health risks, cutting out gluten is a way to stay healthy and alive.

Sorting out allergies

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a reaction to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. A genetic mutation prompts a person’s immune system to react to that protein and attack the person’s small intestine, said Dr. Robin Matuk, a Bakersfield gastroenterologist.

The disease can cause a spectrum of symptoms including anemia, severe weight loss, weakness, fatigue, joint aches and pains, skin disorders, bloating and diarrhea. Celiac’s long-term complications include osteoporosis, malnutrition, infertility and lymphoma of the small intestine. A strick gluten-free diet is the only treatment.

A wheat allergy is also treated by cutting out wheat, but is not the same as celiac, said Dr. Paula Ardron, an allergist and immunologist with Kaiser Permanente. The symptoms of wheat allergy usually appear within an hour or two of exposure to even a small amount of wheat and can include swelling of the lips and tongue, vomiting or diarrhea and hives.

“It’s the type of thing within hours it could kill them,” Ardron said.

More people are asking to be tested for celiac, Ardron said, but “the number of true cases of celiac disease that we diagnose is far less than the number of tests that we have requests for.”

The physician also hasn’t noticed an increase in the number of people with wheat allergies.

“I think both diseases are rare,” Ardron said. “I think that people’s awareness is higher but we’re not actually seeing (more cases).”

A study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology last fall pegged the prevalence of celiac disease in the U.S. at 0.71 percent, 1 in 141. The study also discovered that most of the participants following a gluten-free diet did not have a diagnosis of celiac.

Trying on gluten-free

Kira Wiggins, registered dietician and director of The Wellness Center at San Joaquin Community Hospital, said she’s seen a lot of self-diagnoses in the gluten-free arena.

Wiggins most commonly sees people who are interested in a gluten-free diet because they want to lose weight. They may find what they are looking for in gluten-free life, shedding pounds because they are axing some high calorie foods, Wiggins said.

The dietician said swearing off gluten is the latest diet fad, but she added that gluten-free diets provide much needed relief to people with celiac or who are intolerant of gluten.

People who are sensitive to gluten may have symptoms similar to celiac and irritable bowel, such as cramping, gas and diarrhea, Matuk said. They may try a gluten-free diet, feel better, and decide they don’t want to be tested for celiac — a process that usually entails a blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine. 

The antibodies indicative of celiac can normalize over time in a patient who eliminates gluten and their small intestine may heal as well, Matuk said. To test positive for the disease again, a person might have to eat gluten, something that could make them very sick, Matuk said.

“I would never advocate giving somebody a piece of bread to see what happened. I would just do genetic testing to see if they carried the mutation,” Matuk said.

For people who are gluten-free but don’t know if they have celiac or not, Matuk said his only concern is the risks associated with celiac.

“Somebody who may feel they’re gluten sensitive but actually have true celiac may be exposing their body to gluten inadvertently.

Not enough to make them sick overtly but enough to keep their immune system active,” Matuk said, noting that gluten can lurk in unexpected places such as soy sauce and some pill capsules.

“Those patients are the ones that are at risk for down the road developing the severe complications — neuropathy, osteoporosis, cancer or lymphoma of the small intestine,” he said.

David Walker, who was diagnosed with celiac in 2008, encouraged people who suspect they have celiac to talk to their physician.

“Visit your doctor and make sure that you present all the symptoms and get properly tested,” Walker said.

Walker said he suffered from crippling, chronic diarrhea for about 15 years before he eradicated gluten from his diet.

“(I would) have aches and pains and I was just chronically tired from having to go to the bathroom all the time and lack of the nutrition,” he said.

Walker said he felt “100 percent better” after changing his diet, and he started the website bakersfieldceliacs.com to help others find the same resources he discovered.

“A lot of people get scared (of the diagnosis),” Walker said. “If you follow the diet and go out and learn, you know, it’s not bad.”

If people are thinking of pulling gluten from their diet without a medical diagnosis behind their decision, Ardron said they should make sure they have a good understanding of gluten intolerance. To her, the gluten-free life makes more sense for folks grappling with gastrointestinal issues than for people seeking a panacea for everything from joint pain to moodiness, she said.

Going gluten-free shouldn’t be harmful as long as folks balance out their diet with other grains, she and Wiggins said.

Brian Parks, of Bakersfield, decided to try gluten-free last summer after some of his own research. He’d already tried cutting out caffeine and dairy to alleviate the bloating and diarrhea that plagued him for decades and worsened in recent years.

Within a couple of days, he felt better, Parks said.

People have been supportive of his diet change, save for a few eye rolls, Parks said. He said he understands the skepticism.

“I don’t think that’s completely a bad thing because there is a lot of junk that passes through” in health and nutrition fads, he said.

“All I know is I feel better,” Parks added.