This once unpalatable dining option goes mainstream in Morgantown.

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Gluten-free. For the uninitiated, it’s a label almost guaranteed to inspire guilt. Is this just one more thing, like sugar, fat, and salt, we’re supposed to eat less of?

If sightings of this label in supermarkets and restaurants around town have worried you, worry no more. Gluten is fine for most people—it’s great, in fact. This protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and, to a lesser extent, oats is responsible for the wonderful elasticity of kneaded dough. It makes possible the heavenly lightness of our favorite pastries.

So who would want to be free of that springy deliciousness? For most, eating gluten-free is not by choice, but by medical necessity. “There are definitely people who should 100 percent be on a gluten-free diet,” says Stacey Gillespie, a nurse practitioner in pediatrics at WVU Healthcare who has expertise in nutrition and the digestive system.

“People who have celiac disease can’t digest gluten,” Stacey explains. It’s not an allergy, she says, which is a temporary overreaction by the immune system to a foreign substance. It’s an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks part of the body itself—in this case, the lining of the small intestine. That leads to deficiencies that doctors are recognizing in an increasingly broad range of symptoms. And unlike an allergy, celiac can cause permanent damage, including osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and even intestinal cancer.

The only treatment is to avoid gluten—in the past, an almost famously ascetic lifestyle. “It’s a really restrictive diet,” Stacey says. “For all of your wheat and rye and barley, you’re substituting rice, rice flour, potato starch, things made of corn. You can’t just run to the store and buy a loaf of bread.”

That’s only the beginning. Imagine cutting pasta, pizza, and the whole range of pastries out of your life. Forget about the fun breakfast and brunch foods and most desserts and celebratory treats. Rye, barley, oats—all dead to you. And then consider the fact that gluten is hidden in prepared foods as common as soy sauce, salad dressings, processed meats, and even some ice creams.

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