The number of people on gluten-free diets has grown in the last decade. It has become one of the latest health trends and now, you can easily find gluten-free products in grocery stores. But does cutting it out of your diet really makes you healthier?
This article will cover everything you should know about gluten before you consider avoiding it!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein naturally found in certain grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. It can form an elastic network that stretches and help dough rise during baking. Additionally, gluten provides a chewy, satisfying texture. Because of their unique glue-like properties, gluten is often added to processed foods to enhance texture and retain moisture.
Sources of Gluten
Natural foods: whole wheat, wheat bran, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, couscous, farro, semolina, durum, wheat germ, cracked wheat
Processed foods: crackers, bread, breadcrumbs, pasta, seitan, wheat-containing soba noodles, some veggie burgers and other meat substitutes, cookies, pastries, cereals, barley malt, malt vinegar, soy sauce, certain salad dressings, sauces or gravies thickened with flour, beer.
While oats are naturally gluten free, cross-contamination may occur when they are processed in the same facilities as the grains listed above. Always read the food labels of foods you buy to avoid any confusion.
Should I Avoid Gluten?
There’s a lot of buzz around the benefits of going gluten-free. The claimed benefits of the diet are improved health, weight loss and increased energy.
So, is gluten bad? Should I avoid it?
The quick answer is yes and no, it all depends!
First of all, most people can tolerate gluten without experiencing any side effects. They are only problematic for those with certain medical conditions such as:
1. Celiac disease
About 1% of the world's population suffers from celiac disease, which is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakes gluten for a foreign threat. Therefore, it triggers the immune system to attack the gluten proteins, resulting in gut wall damage. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, anemia and symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, constipation and weight loss. Currently, there is no cure for this condition and the only known treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
2. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
While there is no clear definition of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, people with this type of intolerance experience similar symptoms as seen with celiac disease, despite having no intestinal damage. A doctor may make this diagnosis when a person does not test positive for celiac disease or wheat allergies, yet still reacts negatively to gluten. Some experts, however, believe these symptoms can also be caused by FODMAPs, short-chain carbohydrates that are thought to be digestive irritants. As of now, the only way to eliminate the symptoms is to follow a gluten-free diet.
3. Wheat allergy
A wheat allergy is a type of allergic reaction caused by one or more proteins found in wheat, not just gluten protein. Symptoms may include swelling or itching of the mouth or throat, hives, itchy eyes, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea and headache. In severe cases, it can also cause anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can be life threatening. Hence, people with a wheat allergy must avoid wheat but may still safely consume gluten from non-wheat sources like barley or rye. This condition is more common in children, who usually outgrow it by the time they reach adulthood.
4. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder that causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation. IBS symptoms may be worsened by the consumption of gluten since they are highly resistant to human digestive enzymes. Some research suggests that a gluten-free diet may benefit certain individuals with IBS.
Secondly, there is no conclusive evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health or prevent disease if you do not have celiac disease or can consume gluten without any problem.
"A gluten-free product doesn't necessarily mean it's healthier."
In fact, gluten-free foods tend to be less nutritious and more processed. To compensate for changes in texture caused by the removal of gluten, food manufacturers often add sugar or fat to gluten-free products. As a result, they can be higher in fat and carbohydrates but lower in fiber, protein, and vitamins than their gluten-containing counterparts.
If you eliminate gluten products without replacing them with other carbs in the diet, you could be missing out on nutritious whole grains, fiber and micronutrients. Eating wholegrains can lower cholesterol levels and even help regulate your blood sugar, which are linked to a lower risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about gluten, and it is not necessary to avoid it unless there are valid medical reasons to do so. Even so, if you choose to adopt a gluten-free diet, make sure that you replace them with nutritious whole foods to lower your risk of nutritional deficiencies. Keep in mind that you should always consult with a healthcare professional before trying a gluten-free diet.
Allergy UK. (2020). Types of Food Intolerance | Help and Advice | Allergy UK, Allergyuk.org. Available at: https://www.allergyuk.org/information-and-advice/conditions-and-symptoms/586-types-of-food-intolerance
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