Have you noticed the evolution of food labels? Today, we all have different kinds of labels to look out for, like organic, vegan, GMO-free, gluten-free, and more. Going gluten-free is one of the biggest health trends for the past decade, so consumers are asking, “What’s wrong with gluten, and do we need to switch to gluten-free?”
It’s clear that some people must avoid gluten for health reasons, such as people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. However, some health and wellness experts suggest that people should try to follow a gluten-free diet, whether they are intolerant to gluten or not. This led many people to give up gluten to get healthier, lose weight, or improve mood.
If you want to know if going gluten-free is right for you, read on.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein (prolamins) found in barley, wheat, rye, and triticale. It helps foods like bread, pasta, and cereal to hold their shape. It can also be found in some cosmetic products, and in the glue on the back of stamps and envelopes.
The main prolamins in wheat are glutenin and gliadin, while the primary gluten in barley is hordein. Gluten proteins are highly elastic, making them suitable for making bread and other baked goods. Extra gluten in the form of powder is often added to baked goods to increase its rise, strength, and shelf life.
Gluten-rich foods and grains make up a large portion of a typical diet in Western societies.
Gluten is highly resistant to enzymes that break down proteins in the digestive tract. The incomplete digestion of proteins allows large units of amino acids to cross over through the small intestine walls to the rest of the body. It can trigger immune responses for gluten-related conditions, but for the rest of the population, it doesn’t do anything chaotic inside the body.
When is Gluten Bad for You?
Around one in 133 people in the US have celiac disease – a condition in which gluten in food triggers an autoimmune response that attacks the small intestine’s lining. It causes the body not to absorb nutrients to the bloodstream properly, leading to delayed growth, anemia, weight loss, and other things.
For those who have celiac disease and sensitivity to gluten, gluten-free foods are a godsend. For them, eating just one crouton can cause health problems as they can’t digest it at all. And eating a diet that includes gluten can make them severely ill. For these people, the only way to prevent disease progression is to follow a strict, gluten-free diet.
People Who Will Benefit from a Gluten-Free Diet
Gluten intolerance refers to three different types of conditions: celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
1. Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune inflammatory condition caused by both environmental and genetic factors. It impacts about 1% of the world’s population. Ingesting gluten for those with celiac disease causes damage to the cell lining of the small intestines, leading to intestinal damage, nutrient malabsorption, weight loss, and diarrhea.
If a person with the celiac disease continues to consume gluten, complications like anemia, skin diseases, infertility, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, and neurological conditions can develop. Also, there is a link between celiac disease and autoimmune disorders like thyroiditis, a condition that destroys the thyroid gland.
Currently, the only cure for the disease is avoiding gluten entirely. The foods they have to avoid include:
- Foods made with cereals like wheat, malt, barley, rye, and triticale
- Some candies
- Cakes and pies
- French fries
- Sauce mixes
- Brown rice syrup
- Malt derivatives
- Some types of soy sauce
- Self-basting meat
- Processed meats
- Non-food items that may contain include:
- Lip balm, lipstick, lipgloss
- Medications and supplements
- Play dough
- Communion wafers
2. Wheat allergy
Wheat allergy is different from celiac disease, but it’s possible for a person to have both conditions. Those who have a wheat allergy have an abnormal immune response to some proteins in wheat and wheat products. Symptoms of wheat allergy can range to mild nausea to severe anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that causes difficulty in breathing.
3. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition when a person doesn’t have wheat allergy nor celiac disease but still experiences intestinal symptoms or other symptoms like fatigue, headache, and joint pain when they eat something with gluten. Like those with the conditions stated above, people with NCGS report improvement of their symptoms after following a gluten-free diet.
4. Other conditions
Studies have shown that following a gluten-free diet helps reduce symptoms related to other health conditions. Having a gluten-free diet is also linked to the prevention of certain diseases.
- Autoimmune diseases
According to research, autoimmune diseases have common genes and immune pathways with celiac disease. Molecular mimicry is a mechanism in which gluten worsens autoimmune diseases. It’s also how a foreign substance shares similarities with the body’s antigens. Eating foods that contain these antigens can lead to producing antibodies that react with the ingested antigen and the body’s tissues.
Celiac disease is also linked with a higher risk of developing additional autoimmune diseases, as this condition is more prevalent to people with other autoimmune conditions, a study says. This is why it’s advantageous for people with autoimmune diseases to stay away from gluten.
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Gluten has been linked to bowel diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Gluten is shown to increase intestinal permeability and alter gut bacteria in persons with IBS and IBD.
Some studies suggest that people with schizophrenia appear to be more likely to have antibodies involved in celiac disease. Going on a gluten-free diet may help those people who have antibodies. However, more research is needed before recommending a gluten-free diet for people with this disease.
A study found a link between celiac disease and epilepsy. In research involving 113 patients with epilepsy, around 6% of them have celiac disease. It is recommended for people with this disease to avoid gluten.
Should You Go Gluten-Free?
It’s now clear that for some people, such as those with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and autoimmune diseases – going gluten-free is beneficial. Nevertheless, all people don’t need to do so.
But why are gluten-free diets popular? According to a report published in JAMA Internal Medicine, here are the reasons why more and more people follow a gluten-free diet:
- The public perception that a gluten-free diet is healthier than a regular diet, and it can improve non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms
- More people are diagnosing themselves with gluten sensitivity, and they have noticed an improvement in gut health after cutting out gluten from their diet
- Gluten-free products are now widely available in grocery shelves
The report also showed that gluten avoidance has tripled from 2009 to 2014.
Besides these, more celebrities are also encouraging people to go gluten-free. Food manufacturers are also excellent in gluten-free marketing products, making the diet convincing.
According to Beyond Celiac, around 18 million people in the US report having some form of gluten intolerance or sensitivity. They experience symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, fatigue, skin rashes, headache, and “brain fog.”
For those who prefer to follow a gluten-free diet even without any of the aforementioned medical conditions, be aware that it can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies. Bread and cereals are a major source of B vitamins, and although gluten-free flours are becoming more common, they are not fortified with vitamins. Whole wheat is also an important source of dietary fiber, which the bowels need to function correctly. It is possible to get fiber from other grains or beans, fruits, and vegetables, but you need to make some effort. If you don’t experience any adverse symptoms from gluten-containing foods, it isn’t necessary to go gluten-free, because following a gluten-free diet puts on an unnecessary burden for you.
Generally, going gluten-free will not cause adverse health effects as long as these products are replaced with nutritious foods. A good example is people from most of Asia. Their main staple food is rice, not wheat, so they consume a naturally gluten-free diet or low in gluten. It’s possible to have a healthy diet that’s also gluten-free.
Why Many People Feel Better After Avoiding Gluten
There are many reasons why people feel better after switching to a gluten-free diet.
Cutting off gluten usually involves avoiding processed foods, such as baked goods, sugary cereals, and fast food. These foods do not only contain gluten but are also high in sugar, calories, and unhealthy fats. Some people say they lose weight, have less joint pain, and feel less fatigued after going on a gluten-free diet. It’s likely that these benefits are related to removing refined carbs and sugars in their diet, as these foods are linked to weight gain, fatigue, digestive systems, and poor mood – all of which are related to NCGS.
Also, people often replace gluten-containing foods with other healthy options like fruits, vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats, which all promote better health.
Although adopting a gluten-free diet is safe, they are not any healthier than those that contain gluten. Also, experts still debate whether switching to this diet has a direct positive effect on the health of those people without a gluten intolerance. Studies about this are still ongoing.
We are living at a time of increased gluten awareness, but it’s only truly beneficial if you have celiac disease and sensitivity to gluten. It’s a necessity for them, and a choice for others. If you chose to adopt a gluten-free diet, it warrants a significant change in your diet. But the dangers of gluten are probably overrated, as it poses no health risks to those who have no sensitivity or allergy to gluten. It’s up to you and your doctor to take care of your health.