It’s almost a scary word these days. But, what exactly is it? And should you be avoiding it?
Gluten is a type of protein found in many grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It’s responsible for the sticky glue-like consistency you get when flour is mixed with water. It’s commonly found in breads (and baked goods), pastas, cereals, beer and other products made from these grains. And gluten-containing flours are added to a lot of processed foods too.
Gluten is not an essential nutrient, so you can have a healthy nutrient-rich diet without it. In fact, there are many foods available now that are “gluten-free.” Being gluten-free is popular, and many practitioners recommend that everyone avoid gluten. But, as with most “diets,” gluten-free is not guaranteed to be necessary or healthier (gluten-free cookies are still cookies!).
Should you be on a gluten-free diet? Is it just a fad? Let’s talk about who should avoid gluten, and the signs and symptoms to look for to see if you might be sensitive to it too. Then there are a few points to consider before jumping on the “gluten-free bandwagon.”
WHO SHOULD AVOID GLUTEN?
Some people are very sensitive to gluten and should avoid it altogether. If you have celiac disease, you definitely should avoid all traces of it. Celiac disease is a medical condition that is diagnosable with tests from your doctor. About 1% of adults have been diagnosed with celiac disease. However, it’s estimated that up to 80% of people who have it don’t even know it yet (that would jump to 5% of adults with celiac disease).
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. After eating even a trace of gluten the immune system attacks it as a foreign invader. This results in inflammation and severe damage to the gut lining. Some of the digestive symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Other symptoms of celiac disease include headache, fatigue, and skin rashes.
Long term effects of eating gluten, if you have celiac disease, are serious, including:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Nerve damage and,
Celiac disease aside, there are also people who have a wheat allergy, or are sensitive to gluten. Wheat allergies can be diagnosed by your doctor as well. “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity” occurs when people react to gluten, without celiac disease or wheat allergy. It’s estimated that up to 13% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (way more than the 1-5% who have celiac disease).
There are many common signs of gluten sensitivity. The problem is that they’re not very specific. They don’t necessarily occur immediately after eating it, and they’re not always located in the gut.
Symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity include:
- Digestive issues (bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, and stomach pain)
- Skin issues (eczema and redness)
- Bone and joint pain
- Fatigue and chronic tiredness
- Other symptoms like headache and mood issues
BEFORE GOING GLUTEN-FREE, REMEMBER
If you suspect you should avoid gluten, check with your doctor first. The tests for celiac disease are more accurate if you’re still eating gluten. You can also get tested for a wheat allergy or sensitivity.
Some gluten-containing foods have nutrition that you’re going to have to get elsewhere (not from those cookies, though):
- Folate/folic acid (vitamin B9). Many breads and cereals are fortified with this vitamin. To get it naturally, make sure you’re eating plenty of leafy greens. And if you’re planning to get, or are pregnant, talk to your healthcare professional about this critical nutrient.
- Dietary fiber. Whole wheat is a major source of this all-too-important and often forgotten nutrient. High-fiber gluten-free foods include brown rice, quinoa, flax seeds, chia seeds, beans/legumes, and fruits and veggies.
If you think you may be sensitive to gluten, then talk with your doctor about getting tested for celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy. And if you’re going gluten-free, choose nutrient-dense whole foods (not gluten-free processed junk foods) to make sure you get all the nutrition you need.