There has been a lot of talk and media attention about gluten in recent years. To understand what the deal with gluten is, we first need to define it. Gluten is a protein that helps bread maintain its shape. It is found in foods that contain wheat, rye and barley like breads, cereals, pasta and processed junk foods.
Now that we know what gluten is, should we avoid it in our diet?
The short answer is it's not necessary to cut gluten out of a diet unless you have celiac disease or wheat sensitivity. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, the body has an autoimmune reaction that damages the lining of the small intestines, causing it to be unable to absorb nutrients. Avoiding gluten allows the intestines to heal. Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a one in 10 risk of developing celiac disease according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Are there any negatives from removing gluten from your diet?
When gluten is removed from the diet, the diet can become deficient in fiber, folate, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc. Many gluten-free substitutes are not fortified with these vitamins and minerals, which can lead to deficiencies in your body that cause other health risks.
Why are there so many gluten allergies today?
Doctors don't know why there has been an increase in the number of people diagnosed with gluten allergies, but some possibilities may include:
- Higher gluten content in today’s wheat products
- Increased gluten content is a natural insecticide for farmers
- More people are being tested for gluten allergies
- Increased consumption of processed gluten containing foods and medications
- Similar symptoms could be caused by fructans or FODMAPS (which are a group of fermentable carbohydrates in foods, not gluten). They are notorious for causing common digestive issues like bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea and constipation.
Can going gluten-free improve your health?
Many people who follow a gluten-free diet naturally cut out junk food, increase whole grains, fruits and vegetables and as a result feel better. These foods often have more fiber in them contributing to decreased appetite, decreased constipation and possibly weight loss. If you add protein and low fat dairy to your meal plan, you will have a healthy and balanced diet.
It isn't necessary to cut out gluten from your diet to achieve health. It's more about eating a healthy diet of whole foods and less processed food.
What are some gluten-free alternatives?
There are many gluten-free grains to try, including:
- Buckwheat (is from the rhubarb family)
- Oats that have not been contaminated in processing
It is getting easier to live a gluten-free life but it relies on steps like understanding the diet, researching your meals away from home, shopping carefully for groceries, asking questions, and always bringing a back-up snack. If you have questions about gluten in your diet or wonder if it may be to blame for digestive issues you're experiencing, speak with your primary care provider or a dietitian.