Going gluten free certainly has become trendy these days. Unlike many other health trends, however, this one has earned its popularity for good reason. Despite the fact that there are many excellent reasons to go gluten free, many people following a gluten free diet aren’t exactly sure why, so let’s take a closer look at what gluten is, and the real benefits of avoiding it
What is gluten?
First and foremost, what is gluten? It is the protein found in wheat and all glutenous grains, including spelt, barley, oats and rye. Gluten is the substance that give bread products their spongy, fluffy texture, and it is also used as a binding agent in many products such as condiments, ice cream, soy sauce and even shampoo.
For a complete list of foods that contain gluten, check out this great resource.
Gluten Allergy vs. Intolerance
Celiac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune condition, and is the most extreme end of the gluten sensitivity spectrum. Sufferers of CD have extreme reactions to gluten, and sometimes even react to foods that have been prepared in the vicinity of gluten. Studies show that 80% of those with CD go undiagnosed, even though symptoms can be quite severe.Down the spectrum for CD, there are varying degrees of gluten sensitivity that can also cause problems.
Symptoms of CD and gluten sensitivities might include (although to varying degrees):
Why is gluten so problematic?
Gluten allergies and sensitivities are rooted are closely linked to a condition called leaky gut syndrome (or more technically termed increased intestinal permeability). If you are allergic to sensitive to the gluten protein, your gut lining is damaged every time that you eat it, meaning that molecules pass through the gut lining into the blood stream that should not be allowed to. This launches an immune system attack, which causes inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to a myriad of health conditions (diabetes and heart disease, for example), not to mention the role it plays in an inability to lose weight and hormonal imbalances.
As if that weren’t reason enough, studies have also shown that gluten can cause digestive distress in most people, even if you don’t suffer from an actual allergy or sensitivity. Other studies have found that gluten might very well be connected to neurological disorders, and it is already well known that gluten should definitely be avoided for anyone with an autoimmune disease.
Why are there so many people who can’t eat gluten, all of a sudden?
Aside from an increased understanding of gluten and gluten intolerances, the rise in diagnosed gluten allergies and sensitivities could have to do with the way that grains are processed in the western diet. Many gluten containing foods and food products are higher in the gluten protein, not to mention often stripped of other nutrients, such as certain enzymes and fiber, that the human body requires to break down and digest gluten.
The Scientific American Journal stated in a 2009 study that:
"Turning to the biological effects of gluten, investigators learned that repeated exposure...causes the villi, fingerlike structures in the small intestine, to become chronically inflamed and damaged, so that they are unable to carry out their normal function of breaking food down and shunting nutrients across the intestinal wall to the bloodstream (for delivery throughout the body).”
Thankfully, this same study found that much of the havoc wreaked by repeated exposure to gluten in a sensitive or allergic individual can largely be repaired if the problem is caught early enough.
I cut out gluten, but none of my symptoms improved. Does this mean I’m not sensitive?
Maybe, but not necessarily. There are other factors to consider if you’ve eliminated gluten to rule out a potential allergy or sensitivity, and nothing improves. One, a gluten free diet does not automatically equal a healthy diet. While gluten can be a major irritant to a lot of people, just cutting out gluten is not always enough.
Because gluten free diets have become so popular, there is now a slew of gluten free products that just might have taken over an aisle at your local grocery store. Unfortunately, a lot of these products contain the same harmful ingredients as gluten-containing packaged foods, such as artificial colors, flavors, binders and preservatives. While not all are bad, it’s important to learn how to read ingredient labels, and best to avoid products all together with lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce.
Instead, opt for foods that are naturally gluten free such as high quality meats, veggies, fruits, eggs and healthy fats. Some people with a gluten sensitivity or allergy can still eat non-glutenous grains (rice, amaranth, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, teff and certified gluten free oats), but others will find that these grains also need to be eliminated, at least for some time.
So, is gluten really so bad?
As with many nutrition questions, there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer. It always depends on the person and individual circumstances. It is safe to say that gluten allergies and sensitivities certainly might be at the root of many common symptoms, and cutting it out for awhile can prove beneficial. And remember, no harm comes from trying a gluten free diet, and a nice side effect is that you will naturally be eliminating most refined carbs and sugars, which are major contributors to weight gain and many degenerative diseases.
Check out this resource for a detailed explanation of how to undergo an elimination diet, if you decide to also cut out grains and other potentially harmful foods. If in the end you find that gluten does not cause problems for you, keep in mind that it can cause inflammation, so eat it in moderation.
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