What Exactly is Gluten and why Gluten-Free Diets
We here it everywhere we go these days. Gluten-Free! And we all know someone that is on a healthy gluten-free diet.
If you’ve been grocery shopping lately you’re almost certainly aware of the presence or lack of gluten in your food.
Gluten-free foods are all over store shelves these days, and while they used to be for the health food and health food store set only, these products are now being made by big brands and sold through major retailers.
Should everyone go gluten free?
Most people still don’t really understand what gluten is though. Even individuals who have adopted gluten-free diets may not be quite sure why they’re on one, other than the fact that they’ve been told that going gluten-free is healthier.
Keep reading to learn more about gluten and why it is a potentially harmful ingredient found in many common foods.
What Exactly Is Gluten?
Gluten, a word that actually comes from the Latin word glue, is a name given to a wheat proteins. However, you’ll find it in more than just wheat bread and wheat-based crackers. The protein is also found in durum, spelt, farina, farro and emmer, all of which are types of wheat, along with grains like rye and barley.
Wheat proteins helps provide elasticity to dough, which in turn make baked goods rise, keep their desired shape and provide a certain texture that consumers recognize as chewy. Gluten isn’t just found in bread and baked goods though, which is what makes it so hard for people with Celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity, and even you to avoid it!
What Foods Contain Gluten?
Gluten is commonly found in almost every type of bread out there, barring those that are not made with any form of wheat, rye or barley, like breads and baked goods made with sorghum, millet and buckwheat. Other foods do contain gluten though, so simply cutting bread and bakery items out of your diet isn’t going to work.
In fact, gluten is often found in commercially produced soups, sauces, salad dressings and cereals, as well as beverages made from grains like beer. Surprising foods that may contain gluten include hot dogs, soy sauce, which is made partially from wheat, and sweets like red licorice.
Anything that is in a package or a ready-to-eat product probably contains gluten.
Where Did Gluten Come From?
If you’re like a lot of people out there, you never really heard about gluten until a few years ago. That’s when health food companies and consumers who realized they were having trouble with gluten started to take notice of what can be a serious health concern.
While gluten has always been in foods that contain wheat, as well as rye and barley, a lot of food companies have added gluten to products to improve their taste and texture. This has been happening since prepared foods and snacks were widely available.
High fructose corn syrup was not introduced into our foods until 1978. When manufacturers found out they could add sweetness to our foods at a much cheaper price, a sugar boom was born. Same with gluten. It’s everywhere and in almost everything. Unfortunately our bodies are not equipped to handle this onslaught of additives.
Simply put, gluten is not a new substance that food companies have sprung on us. It’s been around a while, but only recently have we realized it’s in all packaged foods (which we eat so much more of) and it has become problematic for a lot of people.
The Problem with Gluten
The problem is that gluten is very bad for some people – people with Celiac disease. It’s also an irritant for people who have gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance. Who knows how many millions of people are feeling the ill effects of gluten without ever realizing it.
Before talk of Celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity made its way into the mainstream, many people simply felt bad after they ate. Maybe some picked up on clues that meals of rich in carbohydrates were bad for them. Some individuals likely found success on a low carbohydrate diet.
Individuals who suffer from Celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity experience stomach upset after eating foods that contain gluten, as well as diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain. In most cases, people who are diagnosed with Celiac disease are more sensitive to gluten and experience more problematic symptoms.
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance vs. Gluten Sensitivity
The main difference between Celiac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity is the severity of the problem. Individuals with Celiac disease also suffer long-term side effects that intolerant and sensitive people do not.
Just like most health issues, there are staggered levels of gluten-related disorders. That’s why so many people have a hard time getting a diagnosis or even recognizing that gluten is a problem for them personally.
Celiac disease, the most serious of the three, is an autoimmune disorder that is generally hereditary. Though it affects about 1 in 100 people around the world, many are still undiagnosed because the disease has really only come to light, even among doctors, in the last few years.
When exposed to gluten, the small intestine of an individual with Celiac disease responds by treating the protein like problematic bacteria or something that shouldn’t be there. Over time, this immune response creates villi, which are nubby, finger-like bumps on the small intestine. As villi get damaged, they keep the body from absorbing essential nutrients it needs to function properly.
Gluten intolerance is a little bit different than Celiac disease, in that the body won’t attack the protein and form villi in the small intestine. That means that people with gluten intolerance aren’t likely to experience long-term health problems related to gluten consumption.
Individuals who are gluten intolerant will commonly experience stomach upset, diarrhea, abdominal cramping and bloating when they consume gluten though. In general, people who are gluten intolerant experience more severe symptoms when they eat more gluten, meaning a plate of French toast will do more damage than a small slice of bread.
Unlike Celiac disease and severe to moderate gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity can be extremely hard to diagnose. That’s because gluten sensitivity can come and go and you may not experience symptoms of discomfort every single time you consume foods that contain gluten.
Gluten sensitivity often rears its head when people eat a lot of foods that contain wheat proteins in one sitting. Stomach upset, abdominal cramping and a need to use the bathroom quickly after eating are common systems.
Visit Your Doctor
Before you can really determine whether or not you have Celiac disease, gluten intolerance or sensitivity, you will ned to consult your doctor. In the past, many doctors dismissed gluten-related issues when patients were concerned about them, but today, almost every doctor understands that it is a real medical issue.
To determine if you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity your doctor will do some basic tests, not dissimilar to a basic blood test. The most commonly used is the tTG-IgA test. If results come back pointing toward Celiac disease, your doctor will likely want to schedule a biopsy of your small intestine.
Blood tests performed by your doctor may not show conclusive results if you have a gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, however.
What If I Don’t Have Celiac Disease?
A lot of people feel strange about cutting gluten out of their diet if they are not diagnosed with full-blown Celiac disease. You shouldn’t though since most tests aren’t going to tell you if you have a moderate to mild intolerance or sensitivity.
Instead of relying on a test, consider a healthy gluten-free diet for a short period of time. Take notes and see how you feel. When you reintroduce gluten to your diet do you feel bloated or prone to stomach upset?
If gluten seems to bother you it could be time to cut it out altogether if you want to feel your best.
Going to the doctor to see if you have Celiac disease is an important step for people who are concerned about gluten consumption. If your doctor does diagnose you with Celiac disease, going gluten-free is essential for your health. Even people who don’t have Celiac disease, including those with mild sensitivities, may still benefit from a change in diet though.
The healthiest way to go about changing your diet is simple. Eat more lean protein, green vegetables and fresh fruits. Anything made by nature will always be gluten free. Avoid any packaged foods and of course all fast foods.
Simplifying your diet is an excellent start, but educating yourself and being a smart shopper is just as important. If you don’t do those things, you’ll likely still have some gluten in your diet since it’s so prevalent in food these days.
Check the Label
It might sound obvious that you need to read the label if you’re looking to avoid gluten in your diet. However, many people simply don’t do it as carefully as they should. While more and more manufacturers are including the words “gluten-free” on their packaging, not all products free of gluten are going to be labeled that way.
Even more problematic is the fact that products that contain gluten won’t say so directly on them. Educate yourself about what to look for and familiarize yourself with gluten-free versions of foods you love.