Gluten seems to have become the newest four-letter word…even though it has six letters. But you get what I’m saying, right? It’s our newest addition to the clan of nutrition villains out to destroy our bodies!
I sure hope you guys can tell when my sarcasm is coming through because ^^^ sarcasm.
That video gets me every time. It’s pretty hilarious, but also kinda sad. Such a bummer that we latch onto nutrition trends without fully understanding them yet allowing them to rule our diets! The purpose of this post is to give you all a bit more information to make better informed decisions before removing a major food component from your diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten is made up of storage proteins, depending on the source. For example, gluten from wheat is gliadin + glutenin. Gluten is simply a protein in wheat, barley, + rye products. It’s important from a baking standpoint as it provides structure + elasticity to doughs.
In latin, gluten means “glue,” and that makes sense because it holds our baked goods all together. When you’re making homemade bread, you have to knead it quite a bit, right? You’re manipulating the dough to form + strengthen gluten so your bread with have enough stability to rise + hold its shape.
Where is it found?
The most basic answer you will hear is that it’s found in wheat, barley, + rye products. While true, gluten is found lingering in some other items you may not have thought of. Soups, sauces, beer, cereals, salad dressings, soy sauce, breadcrumbs, french fries, candy, potato chips, lip balm, communion wafers, etc. There’s so many place gluten can hide making it difficult for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten/wheat sensitivity to ensure they avoid it.
Celiac disease (CD) is an autoimmune disorder estimated to affect about 0.5-1% of the world’s population or 3 million Americans, which by my math, is close to about 1% of the U.S. population. When those with CD ingest gluten, they have an inflammatory response in which autoantibodies affect several areas of their body, including the small intestine villi [tiny finger-like structures that line our intestines to aid in absorption].
CD symptoms are not limited to gastrointestinal. However, in children, it is more likely to present as diarrhea, bloating, vomiting, constipation, fatigue, weight loss, etc. In adults, other symptoms may include iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, arthritis, bone/joint pain, migraines, peripheral neuropathy [tingling or numbness in hands/feet], + infertility, along with the GI symptoms above.
In order to properly diagnose CD, one must be actively consuming gluten in their diet. This makes self-diagnosis/treatment more difficult because many are resistant to adding gluten back into their diet if they believe it was causing uncomfortable symptoms. They may start with a blood test, however, the only way to confirm a diagnosis of CD is to perform a biopsy of the small intestine. In this biopsy, they remove a small part of the small intestine to check if villi damage is consistent with CD.
Non-Celiac Wheat/Gluten Sensitivity
This sensitivity is a fairly new, somewhat controversial diagnosis with more research needed to confirm all aspects of this conditions. In short, NCWS or NCGS is when someone experiences CD symptoms, however, they do not test positive for celiac disease and the removal of gluten resolves their symptoms.
We don’t currently have a definitive set of diagnostics for this sensitivity other than a negative CD test + symptom resolution with a gluten-free diet. Until recently, it was also believed that non-celiac wheat/gluten sensitivity did not cause the same intestinal damage as celiac disease, however, recent research has found some evidence of similar damage.
Ultimately, a gluten-free diet is a lifetime requirement for either of the above conditions. However, I want to note again that you must be eating gluten prior to diagnostic testing. All this to say, if you feel that you have a gluten-related issue, seek out a medical professional prior to self-diagnosing/treating so you can ensure the best care possible!
Also, quick note on anxiety + GI symptoms. They can be correlated, so sometimes we can get ourselves worked up about gluten in our food. That can exasperate symptoms! Anxiety + mental health is another area that needs to be addressed for everyone. Doesn’t mean there isn’t another medical condition occurring, but this is still an important aspect of health to manage.
Why do people fear it?
My theory is that most people have taken to avoiding gluten as a weight loss tool / diet. And you all know how I feel about diets. But I would be willing to bet that many who choose to avoid gluten, are mostly just avoiding the major sources, making this another potential variation on the “low carb” train. Y’all. WE NEED CARBS. They provide immediate, quick energy, and literally fuel our brain. I’d say that kind of important, yeah?
Another comment made about removing gluten from their diets is that they simply “feel better.” Which, if you have CD or NGWS/NCGS, then absolutely, I’m sure you feel much better! But, as with most nutritional studies, it’s really difficult to pinpoint a specific food in a variable diet. How do we know that it was the gluten in that burger + fries causing you to be bloated rather than the extra sodium? I say this not at all to dismiss symptoms, but to caution all of us before making quick decisions about removing an entire food type/group from our diets. If it’s not medically necessary, let’s not willingly restrict our diets, okay?
Gluten as a marketing tool?
I can’t totally blame marketing teams for latching onto the gluten-free craze. It makes sense, right? If something is socially popular, might as well make your product fit into that category to increase sales. But now we’re seeing a “gluten-free” label on so many products that literally never contained gluten to begin with, and according to the FDA, that’s completely allowed.
For example, shampoos are being labeled as gluten free now. But gluten must be ingested for it to be of concern to those with CD or NGWS/NCGS. I certainly hope nobody is eating their shampoo! Yuck! But it makes sense for a lip balm to be labeled gluten-free. How many of us lick our lips while wearing it, especially when it’s a delicious flavor? 🙋
My take-home message is this:
Gluten-free does not equal “healthy” or “good.” It simply means there’s no gluten in it! That does not change the morality of that product or its ability to nourish your body.
Do you avoid gluten? Why or why not?