What is Gluten? Is it Bad for You?
“Gluten-free diet” may be the most popular food trend of the past decade, but is it really healthy for everyone? Clearly, people with celiac disease must be on a gluten-free diet as gluten causes damage to the cells of their digestive tract. But folks with celiac disease make up 1% of the population –what about the other 99% of people? Should we all go gluten-free?
While some people show signs of gluten sensitivity such as bloating and flatulence, most people tolerate and digest gluten-containing foods perfectly well. If you’re considering limiting or perhaps completely cutting out gluten from your diet, it’s good to know the whole story.
What Is Gluten?
Many people are confused about the effects gluten has on human health. It’s not surprising why the whole topic seems so complicated and confusing though – some experts eat it every day, claiming it’s healthy for almost everyone, while others avoid it like the plague, saying it promotes inflammation. So which is it? (Un)Surprisingly, it can be both – meaning how gluten will affect you depends on your health. But before we delve into the details of gluten’s effects on people, let’s quickly cover the basics.
Nowadays, almost everyone has an opinion on gluten, but not many actually know what gluten is. To put it simply, gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye and barley. It’s also found in various other foods, including pasta, pizza, beer, many cookies and candies, cereal and bread, as it helps hold the food’s shape and form. Furthermore, gluten can be found in cosmetics such as lip balms and lipsticks, as well as everyday items like glue on the back of envelopes and stamps. Why is gluten added to so many things, you ask? It’s because gluten is actually a group of a few different protein types, including glutenin and gliadin, which are highly elastic, helping things (especially foods) keep their shape for a long time. In fact, gluten in the powdered form (vital wheat gluten) is often added to various baked goods as it helps increase rise, strength and shelf life.
Is Gluten Good or Bad For You?
As mentioned, gluten’s effect on you will depend on the state of your health. Some people need to be on a gluten-free diet, others feel better consuming it in only minimal amounts, and most feel fine eating it every day. Which is right for you?
Avoid If: Celiac Disease
If you were diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten is your enemy. Celiac disease is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder that affects about 1% of the population. It’s caused by both genetic and environmental factors and it’s associated with the consumption of gluten-containing foods in susceptible people. Although it involves a number of systems in the body, celiac disease is considered an inflammatory disorder of the small intestine.
So what’s the problem with celiac disease and gluten? When you consume gluten-containing grains, the cells lining your small intestine (enterocytes) get damaged, which leads to nutrient malabsorption, weight loss, diarrhea and general stomach upset.
While many people with celiac disease show no symptoms, those that do, typically involve:
- Skin disorders like dermatitis
- Constipation, diarrhea, bloating
The only real way to determine if you have celiac disease is by getting a blood test for specific antibodies or genotypes, or by getting an intestinal biopsy.
Avoid If: Wheat Allergy
While not very common, wheat allergies do affect some people, typically children. If you’ve been diagnosed with wheat allergy, it may be a good idea to avoid gluten altogether as your body has an abnormal immune response to specific proteins in wheat (and wheat contains gluten). That being said, wheat allergy is different than celiac disease, but it’s possible to have both conditions.
Gluten allergy symptoms can vary from person to person, but they typically include:
- Mild to severe nausea
- Nasal congestion
- Swelling or itching of the throat and mouth
- Difficulty breathing
Wheat allergies are diagnosed by skin-prick testing or blood testing.
May Want to Avoid If: Gluten Sensitivity
Gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance is a fairly common problem. It’s defined as a “clinical entity” caused by the consumption of gluten which leads to negative intestinal and/or other symptoms that improve once the gluten is removed from the diet. Another important thing about gluten sensitivity – celiac disease and wheat allergy have to be excluded. This is why the non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a controversial topic among the health professionals – if it’s not a wheat sensitivity and it’s not a celiac disease….what is it?
Broadly speaking, people with gluten sensitivity experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms after consuming gluten-containing foods, and react positively when avoiding gluten-containing foods. While it does sound similar to celiac disease and wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity is different than both because:
- People with this condition don’t have a damaged gut lining like those with celiac disease
- People with this condition don’t react so negatively and quickly to gluten like those with wheat allergy.
Some of the symptoms of gluten intolerance include:
- Bloating and flatulence
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Dermatitis and skin rashes
- Depression, etc.
Because it’s not scientifically clear how gluten sensitivity works, there is no specific test you can take to find out if you have it. However, if you experience some of the symptoms of gluten intolerance, you can try the elimination diet: simply switch from gluten-containing foods to gluten-free foods for a few weeks and see if there is any improvement. If there is, you can consider switching to a grain-free diet completely.
Do Not Avoid If: No Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms
If you don’t experience most or any of the gluten sensitivity symptoms, and of course any of the celiac disease and wheat allergy symptoms, do not avoid grain-containing foods.
There is currently no evidence that a gluten-free diet can improve an already healthy person’s health (i.e. a person who doesn’t have celiac disease or wheat allergy). In fact, if you don’t experience any major negative symptoms after eating gluten-containing foods, it may be a bad idea to go on a gluten-free diet. Why? It’s simple – any health intervention, especially an elimination diet, comes with some risk. For one, if you go on a gluten-free diet suddenly and without proper research, it’s likely you’ll end up consuming inadequate (too low) amounts of fiber. Two, many gluten-free foods don’t contain as much vitamins and minerals (partly because not many are fortified), so you’re also running a risk of under-consuming many important micronutrients. Finally, a gluten-free diet is more expensive than the standard diet, which is no small factor.
So, to sum up, the cons of a gluten-free diet could be:
- Low fiber consumption
- Nutritional deficiences
- Spending more money on a new diet.
Of course, if you experience negative effects when consuming gluten, it’s perfectly reasonable to try to eliminate it from your diet. You can avoid at least two of those cons if you do your research properly – instead of just throwing out healthy, fiber-rich gluten-containing foods and switching to easy but overly processed alternatives, make sure you consume enough veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and gluten-free grains like buckwheat, oats, corn, millet, sorghum, etc.
Are Gluten-Free Foods and Products Healthier?
If you don’t have celiac disease, wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity but you’re thinking about switching to a gluten-free diet for your health, it’s important to understand that just because an item is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier (or even healthy at all). There are many brands that make gluten-free cookies, candies, cakes, desserts and other highly processes foods, claiming they’re the healthier versions of standard (gluten-containing) products. They’re not – if the product is high in sugar, sodium and fat and low in protein and fiber, it doesn’t matter whether it’s gluten-free or not – it’s junk food. Such companies are dishonest and are after money, not your health -learn to see through the current fads and gimmicks and stick to what the science is telling us.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with indulging yourself from time to time. So, if you need to follow a gluten-free diet, such products (gluten-free cakes and candies) are fine in moderation. In the end, what’s important is being aware of the facts and doing what is best for you personally.
So, is gluten good or bad for you? It depends. A gluten-free diet is recommended for certain people, including those diagnosed with celiac disease, wheat allergy and people with certain autoimmune diseases. Folks who experience gluten sensitivity may also benefit from a gluten-free diet. On the other hand, people who don’t experience any negative symptoms after consuming gluten wouldn’t benefit from going gluten-free; in fact, they may struggle with a new diet.
That being said, if you want to switch to a gluten-free diet out of curiosity and not a necessity, you can. A gluten-free diet is safe even for people who don’t necessarily need to be on one, so feel free to experiment and see what works best for you.
Whatever you decide to do though, remember to talk to your doctor before making any drastic changes. You may also benefit from talking to a nutritionist.