If there is one topic that is talked about everyday in the health and nutrition industry, it is gluten. I’m pretty sure each one of us has heard about it or read an article or blog post on going gluten free. But what actually is gluten and why does it cause so much interest?
Gluten refers to the proteins (gliadin and glutenin) found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, bulgur, durum flour, kamut, semolina and spelt which are mainly used to make pasta, bread, crackers, cereals, cakes and pastries but also utilised in the production of beer, dressings, sauces and seasonings. Many people that decide to cut gluten from their diet report that it helps improve symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, headaches and weight gain. If you are sensitive to these proteins it certainly will, in the same way that someone else may have a sensitivity or intolerance to lactose or strawberries and benefit from eliminating these items from their diet.
There are a few kinds of proved reactions to gluten. The most well-known is celiac disease, where the body produces an abnormal immune response in the presence of wheat or its proteins. Antibodies will attack the intestinal lining cells, causing damage and inflammation in the small intestine tissues and long term atrophy, decreasing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and allowing the walls of the intestines to become “leaky”. This can cause symptoms like bloating, weight loss, fatigue, headaches, skin issues, hair loss and lead to other problems like osteoporosis, hormonal problems and nerve damage.
A related condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity can generate symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage. An intolerance to wheat can produce symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, weight loss, nutrient deficiencies (iron deficiency, anemia, vitamin D deficiency) and digestive problems. In serious cases, a person with an allergy to gluten or wheat can experience anaphylaxis shock.
There are specific tests done by specialists to diagnose celiac disease that will check the presence of certain antibodies and intestinal wall damage. For allergies, the solution is to avoid gluten and for sensitivities, avoiding wheat or all gluten containing grains for a set period of time and then reintroducing it, will determine if the body is actually reacting to them or not. Note that it’s best to see a doctor before going gluten free, as once a person has avoided gluten for a while, it becomes difficult to establish if celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are present.
I’m sure many of us may have experienced some of the symptoms above and thought it may be a good idea trying a gluten-free diet. So is it worth it for everyone to cut out gluten? Could there be benefits to it?
If you suspect a sensitivity to gluten, there might be. However make sure to work with a professional to do so, to make sure you are substituting the usual gluten options with ones that are not just simply gluten-free but also contain wholesome and nutrient filled ingredients. It certainly will be beneficial to reduce the consumption of processed foods, refined sugar and carbohydrates found in sweets, pastries and ready meals which are often produced with gluten containing grains and flours.
But replacing a donut with a gluten free one, won’t make it suddenly healthy, just like labels such as sugar-free or fat-free don’t make something suddenly good for your health.
Whole grains are an important source of fibre, B vitamins, prebiotics and minerals that are essential for the metabolic processes in the body, blood glucose regulation and for cardiovascular health. Many gluten-free breads, pastries, cereals or ready made products will be stripped of all of these nutrients and will cause long-term problems. If you do eliminate gluten and wheat, replace it with gluten-free grains and whole foods like amaranth, buckwheat, rice, millet, quinoa, teff or sorghum and use flours made from them or from a mix of potato and beans to get enough fibre and nutrition into your diet.
What should you do then? If you suspect gluten sensitivities or have a known family history and genetic predisposition to celiac disease, have a test with a specialist and if you are suggested to avoid gluten, follow the advice of a nutritional professional to make sure to base your diet on whole food alternatives.
If you’re not, enjoy your whole grains and include them into your meals knowing they contain many important nutrients. If you suffer from gluten related symptoms like bloating and other digestive symptoms, headaches, fatigue or skin issues, try reducing your consumption of refined sugars, refined carbohydrates and stimulants as many people who go gluten-free may feel better because, to avoid it, they end up cutting out many processed foods. Focus on real foods and simple ingredients and have your gluten filled donut once in a while!
The key is also to remember to try to be relaxed when you eat. Don’t think of a certain food as “bad” because you read online that it’s not healthy or it’s the latest trend to avoid a certain ingredient, as this may contribute to the fact that you can’t digest it well. There has been extensive research on how the brain and the gut are connected (there is actually something called gut-brain axis connecting the two through the vagus nerve) and how what we eat affects our brain but also how our thoughts around food can lead to stress and anxious states, which will inevitably impair digestive function.