To keep a gluten-free diet or not, that seems to be the question for many. But before we go there, the real question is, what exactly is gluten anyway? And what’s so bad about it? The debate over gluten is certainly a hot topic for many of us (or the people we love). Everyone has an opinion…some of us argue that you will need to pry that slice of pizza out of our dead, cold hands; others swear by a gluten-free lifestyle. So who’s right? The truth is that whatever your opinion is, many of us are probably wrong simply because we don’t know all the facts when it comes to this protein found in wheat.
According to the FDA “gluten is the protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains. Foods that typically contain gluten include breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods.” Ok, fair enough, so why do we need it? How does it help us or hurt us? And for the love of carbs can someone please tell us if we need to cut it out of our diets? To help you make an informed decision, here are 10 facts about gluten and the prospect of a gluten-free diet.
1. What is gluten? First of all, gluten is a natural element of common grains that you eat. It is a protein that occurs in wheat, barley, rye and oats. But it’s not as clear-cut as to say that grains contain gluten. Some grains, such as quinoa, rice and corn are naturally gluten-free, while other seemingly innocent foods such as soy sauce, gravy, beer and salad dressings might be hiding gluten. When in doubt, read the fine print of food labels and always ask in restaurants if you want to know all the gluten-ous facts about your food.
2. What does gluten do? This protein, which alone has a similar flavor and consistency to cornstarch, is what strengthens the dough and creates pockets to trap the air released by leavening agents like yeast. In other words, it’s what gives your morning toast the consistency, texture and flavor that you have come to know and love.
3. How does it affect your body? Depends…many people can eat gluten with zero negative side effects except maybe a little weight gain thanks to the massive load of carbs you just ate. But for many people (we’re talking millions) eating gluten can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and potentially long-term damage to your digestive system.
4. What is Celiac Disease? This is a digestive disorder that affects the lining of the small intestine as the result of gluten consumption. Basically, when a person with Celiac eats gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the villi in the small intestine. You may remember from your high school biology class that villi line the intestinal wall and are necessary to ensure that the nutrients you eat are absorbed into your bloodstream. Without a healthy intestinal wall you can become malnourished. If it sounds serious, it is, and it’s becoming more common as time goes on. As Time reports, according to Joseph A. Murray, MD, professor of medicine and gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, “I think of celiac disease now as a public health issue.”
5. How many people are affected by Celiac Disease? According to recent reports more than 2 million people in the United States alone are affected by Celiac Disease, and that number is only growing, a fact that is stumping scientists trying to understand the disease.
6. Is there a difference between gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance? We’re so glad you asked. Yes, there is a difference. Turns out there are various levels of distress in response to gluten intake. First of all it’s important to note that both of these conditions are not forms of Celiac Disease in that they do not involve an immune system response. The most common issue is gluten sensitivity, which affects nearly 18 million people in the U.S. It’s the least severe of the gluten-related issues, and so far there is no proof that this sensitivity can cause any permanent damage to your intestines. Basically it means that when you eat gluten you feel bloated, gassy, nauseous, sluggish and you experience stomach pain. Gluten intolerance involves similar symptoms, though more severe.
7. What are the health risks? For those who have Celiac Disease the long-term risks are scary; over time damage to your intestinal wall can cause an inability to absorb nutrients, which can lead to malnourishment, weight loss, vitamin deficiencies, stunted growth and more. Beyond that, some neurologists believe gluten to be the culprit behind several brain issues. As The New Yorker reports, David Perlmutter, a neurologist and author of best-selling book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers believes that “gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.”
8. Are there natural alternatives to gluten? Of course. Phew. Gluten isn’t in everything, though when you first attempt to cut it out of your diet, it might feel that way. Several naturally existing foods are gluten-free such as fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy and nuts, plus you can still enjoy a gluten-free diet with grains like rice and quinoa.
9. Can foods be made gluten free? Yes, there is good news for everyone out there who cannot (or chooses not to) eat gluten. The foods you love can be made using gluten-free recipes. Don’t freak out, you can still eat pasta and cake. It might not taste exactly the same and the texture will be different since you will be replacing the wheat flour with a substitute, but your love affair with carbs does not have to end. Look for gluten-free labels on packaged foods at the market, and seek out tasty recipes that stay far away from the G word.
10. Why is having a gluten-free diet so popular? A combination of more clinically diagnosed cases of Celiac Disease, plus an increased focus on health and how food affects your body have led to a major surge in gluten-free diets. Some people just claim it makes them feel better, though there is no scientific proof to back up that theory. Those who suffer from gluten-related digestive issues are in luck, because they are dealing with their illness during a time when advances in the healthcare and nutrition fields are making it easier than ever to enjoy food and enjoy life, even if you have to kiss gluten goodbye.