What’s the Deal with Gluten?
Chances are you’ve heard about gluten. It’s easily one of the hottest (also – most controversial?) nutrition topics in the last few years. Do a Google search and you’ll find thousands and thousands of articles about it…
It’s so popular, people have made memes…
Even Ryan Reynolds is tweeting about it…
But what’s the truth? Is gluten as bad for you as everyone says? Let’s talk about it…
That being said, we realize there are many other ways to approach to nutrition. This article aims to give you a non-biased look at gluten, so you can decide if a gluten-free diet is right for you.
What is gluten?
Before you hop aboard the “gluten is terrible” train, we should all be informed citizens and have a firm understanding of what it is. We’ve written about it before at UPG (you can read our how guide on gluten here), but if you want the synopsis, here it it:
Gluten is a “sticky” or glue-like protein usually found in grains such as wheat (farina, spelt, farro, durum, emmer, einkorn, and khorasan wheat) rye, barley, and triticale.
Gluten is responsible for the:
- elasticity of dough and pasta
- chewiness of bread
- rising property of dough (bread/pizza) during baking
- ability of bread (and other foods) to retain its shape
- ability of cheese to spread
- smooth texture of condiments
- prevention of sauces from curdling
- thickening and filler-like properties of food products
In 2013, a study found that 30% of adults in the US were actively trying to avoid gluten. I’d guess that it may be even higher now.
But is a gluten-free diet healthy for everyone? Do we all need to avoid gluten like the plague?
There are some people that do need to avoid gluten at all costs. These people have celiac disease – an autoimmune condition. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, an immune reaction is triggered and the lining of the small intestine (the villi) become damaged. This not only causes painful symptoms, but it also impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
For people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten needs to be avoided 100% of the time. If not, immediate digestive and painful symptoms arise. The inclusion of gluten (even accidentally) in the diet of someone with celiac disease can eventually lead to issues such as malnutrition, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases.
It’s estimated that celiac disease affects 1% of the population.
So, if only 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, why are so many people avoiding gluten?
A few years ago, an international group of celiac experts declared that people can suffer from something other than celiac disease – Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (also sometimes referred to as gluten sensitivity).
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity isn’t well-understood, other than the fact that a reaction can occur nearly 48 hours after consuming gluten. It’s not an autoimmune reaction or an allergy, it doesn’t damage the small intestine, and there’s really no solid test that can prove its existence.
To be diagnosed with NCGS, a person has tested negative for celiac disease and a wheat allergy, but they still experience a reaction after consuming gluten. When gluten is removed from the diet completely and improvement is seen, a person can then be diagnosed with gluten sensitivity.
A lot of people realize that once they cut out gluten-containing foods from their diet, a lot of their uncomfortable symptoms improve. This could include anything such as recurrent abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, painful joints, skin rashes, or more.
Despite this little protein being so popular (or unpopular), there just isn’t an abundance of research about it at this point in time.
Should we all cut out gluten immediately?
If you’ve adopted the Paleo diet, you’ve already made the jump to a gluten free diet. But for many people, they think that they can adopt a gluten-free diet and instantly be healthier. This means that they stop eating the gluten goodies they usually do and start buying the gluten-free products, things like cookies, crackers, and bread, instead. Not only are these products really not that nourishing to your body, they’re also quite expensive. Unfortunately, this is not a solid approach to good nutrition and it’s not friendly to your wallet.
Paleo For The Win
What we love about the Paleo diet is that the foundation is based in eating a diet composed mainly of whole foods. Eat lots of vegetables, some fruit, a variety of healthy fats, and high quality sources of protein. When you follow that guideline, you automatically stop consuming harmful ingredients like added sugars, trans fat, and anti-nutrients like phytic acid, lectins, and gluten.
If you do decide to go gluten-free, it’s helpful to remember that it’s ALWAYS better to choose naturally gluten-free products (all Paleo-friendly foods) rather than the gluten-free products you find at the store.
For some people, gluten causes no issues and it isn’t necessary to cut it out completely. That being said, following a naturally gluten-free diet, like Paleo, often holds health benefits outside of it being free from that pesky protein.
One last note – if you suspect you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is always best to consult your healthcare professional before adapting your diet. To be properly diagnosed with celiac disease, you have to be consuming gluten at the time of the test, so you won’t want to adopt a gluten-free diet until after you have the test done.
“Gluten Sensitivity”. The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
“Percentage Of U.S. Adults Trying To Cut Down Or Avoid Gluten In Their Diets Reaches New High In 2013, Reports NPD”. NPD Group. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Rubio-Tapia, Alberto et al. “The Prevalence Of Celiac Disease In The United States”. The American Journal of Gastroenterology 107.10 (2012): 1538-1544. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.