Gluten Free food is everywhere! From cookies to pasta, you can find a gluten free version of almost any food at your local grocery store. Restaurants, cookbooks, and even beauty products tout their gluten free credentials. Gluten free diets are all the rage, but what exactly is gluten? Is it something you should be worried about? And will going gluten free improve your health, as is often promised by promoters of gluten free diets? Let’s sort out the facts from the fiction!
What is Gluten?
FACT: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale.
Gluten is what gives structure to wheat-based foods, such as bread, acting as the “glue” that gives these foods their shape. Gluten can also be added to processed foods to add texture and flavor.
Should I Be Worried About Consuming Gluten?
FACT: Most people can consume gluten without any problems.
Humans have digestive enzymes that break down specific proteins, such as gluten. Although these enzymes do not break down gluten completely, the majority of healthy people do not experience any issues from the undigested gluten.
However, gluten can cause health problems for some people with specific medical conditions. For these people, a gluten free diet is a necessity. These conditions include:
• Celiac Disease: Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects around 1% of the population. In people with celiac disease, consuming gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, leading to damage and inflammation, as well as symptoms such as bloating and diarrhea.
• Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: Also known as gluten intolerance, this condition can cause similar symptoms to celiac disease, but there is no autoimmune response and the small intestine is not damaged.
FICTION: Consuming gluten is bad for one’s health.
There is no evidence to support that gluten is unhealthy for people who do not have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. In fact, many foods that contain gluten are also good sources of important nutrients, such as fiber, B vitamins, and iron. Commonly consumed whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, are an important part of a healthy diet and have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Will Going Gluten-Free Improve My Health?
FICTION: A gluten-free diet is inherently healthy and leads to weight loss, increased energy, and improved overall health.
A gluten free diet is NOT always healthy. Most of the health claims related to following a gluten free diet, such as weight loss, are unsubstantiated. In fact, following a gluten-free diet can be challenging and may lead to nutritional deficiencies if not properly planned. Many gluten-free products are highly processed and may be higher in fat, sugar, and calories than their gluten-containing counterparts. Additionally, many gluten-free products are not fortified with important nutrients, such as B vitamins and iron, which can lead to deficiencies if these nutrients are not obtained from other sources.
The Bottom Line:
Gluten is present in many foods, but it isn’t the dietary demon that it’s often made out to be. For people without specific medical conditions, such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance, consuming gluten is perfectly acceptable. In addition, gluten free diets are not always healthy and do not automatically lead to improved health. However, if you do choose to follow a gluten free diet, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider to ensure that your diet is well planned and provides all of the nutrients that you need for optimal health.