What's the Deal with Gluten?

There is often confusion surrounding the topic of gluten. What is it? Is it bad for me? Should I be avoiding it? The answer, in reality, is relatively simple. First, let’s explain exactly what gluten is, and in which foods it’s present.

Gluten is a protein network made up of components called gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is found in certain grains such as wheat, barley and rye. For a more extensive list of gluten-containing grains, click here. Gluten’s presence in different foods gives the food structure and elasticity, which gives it a great texture. Without gluten, certain baked goods and breads would have a much more dry, crumbly consistency.

So why do some people avoid it?

People may choose to avoid gluten for a number of reasons. However, a survey done in 2015 shows that the top two reasons people state for why they avoid gluten are “no reason,” and “healthier option.” So, is gluten actually unhealthy?

Gluten as a Trend

In the early 2000s, many celebrities endorsed a gluten-free diet as a “healthier” diet that promotes weight loss and various other health benefits. However, evidence-based research supporting gluten-free as a beneficial option for the general public is lacking. In fact, some studies even suggest an association between a gluten-free diet and a higher BMI. Although there is currently no evidence suggesting a gluten-free diet supports weight loss or other health benefits for the general public, there are a few instances in which a gluten-free diet may be beneficial.

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is characterized by a heightened immunologic reaction to gluten. Simply put, when people with a gluten sensitivity eat foods containing gluten, they may experience a wide variety of adverse side effects. These side effects include, but are not limited to, headaches, bloating, gas, diarrhea and overall GI distress.

Unfortunately, non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be hard to diagnose. This is because the sensitivity is diagnosed solely on symptoms, and these symptoms can be subjective. These symptoms also can overlap with a number of other diseases, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause. However, for people that do experience adverse side effects when gluten is consumed, a gluten-free diet often improves symptoms.

Celiac Disease

Another evidence-based reason to avoid gluten is the diagnosis of celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune response that causes inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining. In the US, the prevalence of celiac is estimated to be 1 in 100 people. When a person has celiac disease, ingestion of gluten causes intestinal damage and malabsorption of vital nutrients, increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers, and other GI disturbances.

Currently, celiac disease is treated with a strict gluten-free diet. This diet not only avoids gluten-containing foods, but also all traces of wheat, barley, and rye. This means that even foods that are processed near gluten, such as oatmeal that is not 100% gluten-free, and food that has touched the same surface as gluten-containing products should be avoided completely. Although the ingestion of gluten may not always produce symptoms in those with celiac disease, it will still be causing damage.

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