Gluten- Is It the Enemy?
When you love food as much as I do, you can’t help but feel bad for the foods that get wrongly discriminated against; gluten being one of the biggest victims. The thing that drives me nuts about gluten, is that people don’t even know what it is!
Gluten is a protein. Yes, you read that correct. Gluten is a protein that is made up of two smaller proteins glutenin and gliadid, that creates an elastic membrane when flour- liquid mixtures are kneaded together (think pizza dough). Gluten is also responsible for providing that delightful chewy texture in breads (think biting into a perfect piece of sourdough bread). Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye, which are all great sources of whole grains.
The 1% of our population who has celiac disease, are the only people who have a valid, medical reason, to abstain from consuming gluten. This is because when an individual presenting with celiac’s consumes gluten, a very unpleasant autoimmune reaction is triggered, which damages intestinal cells. These patients must avoid ALL forms of gluten, even microscopic amounts from cross contamination. If an individual with celiac’s ingests gluten they can develop very serious health consequences such as gastrointestinal cancer, anemia, miscarriage, osteoporosis, and neurological symptoms. So yes, gluten is the enemy for individuals who have celiac disease because when they eat gluten, they will become really sick! Roughly .4% of the population has a wheat allergy, and since gluten is found in wheat, these individuals should remove gluten from their diet as well. (1) When these individuals consume gluten they will develop a skin, respiratory, or gastrointestinal allergic reaction. Moral of the story- if you have tested positive for Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy do not consume gluten.
For the other 99% of the population, gluten is a perfectly fine, and delicious protein that we should not be afraid of eating! Have you heard someone claim that abstaining from consuming gluten has caused them to lose weight? People who believe this need to realize that correlation does not prove causation. Gluten is found in an abundance of processed foods (think the center aisles of the grocery store and delicious baked goods) that contain copious amounts of added sugars and excess fats. When you remove gluten from the diet, you instantly eliminate a large source of calories, which can result in weight loss. The food industry has caught on to the gluten free trend and has been working diligently to develop delicious alternatives to your favorite gluten containing foods. To make gluten free foods palatable, food companies are adding extra sugar and fat making these foods no less calorie dense or more nutritious. So if you thinking buying gluten free foods is a healthier alternative, please read your labels and ask questions.
I’m sure you know someone who claims they are gluten sensitive. Again, this is likely not the gluten that is causing your gastrointestinal distress. As I mentioned in a previous post, FODMAPS might be at blame. When you consume fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, water is pulled into your intestines which can cause diarrhea, bloating, and a feeling of discomfort. Studies have found that “gluten-sensitive” subjects given gluten without the presence of FODMAPS did not experience symptoms. With that said, following a low FODMAP diet is really challenging because FODMAPS are present in many foods such as wheat, fruits, and vegetables. (2)
We all know that whole grains are an important component to a healthy diet, therefore consuming whole wheat, barley, and rye, all of which contain gluten are great. For individuals with Celiac Disease, a wheat allergy, or severe gluten intolerance, gluten free sources of whole grains include quinoa, oats, rice, and corn, among others. If you believe following a gluten free diet is healthier, know that there isn’t much scientific evidence favoring that belief. An alternative dietary thought process might be to minimize or eliminate processed foods in your diet and to increase the consumption of produce.
For some comic relief, watch this Jimmy Kimmel video highlighting how little people actually know about gluten:
As with everything, if you have questions please comment below or ask your personal physician or dietitian!
Until next week.
1. Celiac Disease Foundation
2. Gibson PR, Skodje GI, Lundin KEA. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2017;32:86-89.