For some, just the mention of “gluten-free” has them shuddering at the thought of a bread-deprived and pasta-less existence. Although some people are not able to eat gluten due to a medical intolerance, there is a growing debate on the merits of giving up gluten voluntarily in order to avoid unpleasant symptoms or to lose a few pounds. Amid all this uncertainty, here are five things you should know.
Gluten is a protein.
Gluten refers to a family of storage proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten nourishes plant embryos during germination and affects the elasticity of dough, which then affects the chewiness of baked products. Gluten is different from the proteins found in other grains or meats because it is difficult for humans to digest completely.
Sensitivity to gluten can vary from serious to annoying.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, roughly 1 in 100 people have reactions to gluten due to celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the ingestion of gluten to lead to damage in the small intestine. In children and infants, digestive symptoms are more common as an indication of celiac disease. These symptoms include abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, vomiting, delayed growth and puberty, and fatigue. CDF also reports that adults are less likely to have digestive symptoms and must look for signs such as fatigue, bone or joint pain, unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, seizures or migraines, and canker sores inside the mouth. However, some people can be sensitive to gluten without testing positive for celiac disease. People with gluten sensitivity exhibit symptoms such as depression, abdominal pain, bloating, headaches and chronic fatigue when they have gluten in their diet. Individuals with gluten sensitivity do not experience small intestine damage.
Gluten is found in a variety of foods, not just bread and pasta.
Because gluten gives foods a thicker consistency, it is found in a variety of products ranging from salad dressings and soy sauce to some candies and fried foods. Many additives and ingredients in packaged foods also may contain gluten.
Gluten-free food isn’t necessarily healthier.
Even when a product is gluten-free, it still may not be good for you. According to Arthur Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet Solution, many gluten-free packaged products may contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium just like other packaged junk foods. When implementing a gluten-free diet, it is best to stick with naturally gluten-free foods such as vegetables, lean meats, fish, certain whole grains (such as rice and quinoa) and beans.
There are many differing opinions on whether giving up gluten voluntarily is worthwhile or not.
Some studies have shown that gluten can lead to adverse health effects. For example, research conducted by the Mayo Clinic suggests that gluten may modify the intestinal microbiome, which plays a significant role in the development of Type 1 diabetes. On the other hand, many physicians simply encourage patients to be “gluten-aware,” and to do their best to consume gluten in moderation. Ultimately, the first step in deciding whether or not to go gluten-free is determining where you fall on the sensitivity spectrum. If you suspect that gluten could be making you sick, consult a physician who can test you for celiac disease or screen you for non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Although choosing the right diet is an individual endeavor, it’s always good to have the facts. The true effects of gluten may not be apparent for some time; it’s best to listen to your own body and choose the course that will keep you healthy and happy.