Gluten: What You Need to Know

Do we all need to be quite as militant in our avoidance of gluten as we are?

The first time I ever heard of gluten — and how it might negatively affect our bodies — was way back in 2005. I was in Ireland visiting extended family and my aunt was ecstatic after finding a grocery store with an entire section devoted to gluten free foods. “What’s the big deal?” you might ask, “every grocery store has a gluten free section.” Well, not in 2005. Think back to over a decade ago: the localized food movement was barely getting started, whole wheat bread was the gold standard, and low-fat/sugar-free was still king when it came to “healthy eating”. Unless you had celiac disease like my dear aunt — and even still, the disease was just beginning to gain recognition as a real thing  — gluten was nothing to worry about. A naturally-occurring substance that simply bound our bread and grains, as much a fact of life as vitamin C. But fast-forward to today and things have changed a little. After that initial encounter learning what gluten and celiac disease are and how both affected my aunt, the two dipped off my radar for a few years… before popping back up in a major, major way. Suddenly it was 2013 and gluten had gained a new place in the collective conscious, this time among several health perpetrators on the bad list for their abilities to cause inflammation and other unpleasant side effects, and the phrase ‘gluten free’ was suddenly showing up in some very unexpected — and at times unnecessary — places (potato chips? Chocolate?…Wine?). In the few years that have transpired since gluten’s initial outing as a potential health threat, we’ve all gained at least a somewhat broader view of what this substance is and what it could potentially mean for our health. But do we all need to be quite as militant in our avoidance of it as we are? Today I’m diving into what gluten is, why we might want to steer clear, and how to find out if gluten could be messing with your system.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a general term that describes the proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, which act as a sort of glue to bind gluten-containing foods together. Gluten is what gives bread its pleasant bounce, crunch and chew, and what gives pasties, pie crusts, cookies and pastas their hallmark textures. While gluten originates from these particular wheat-containing grains, it’s often found in some unexpected places thanks to cross-contamination in the food industry. While oats processed in a facility that also processes gluten-containing foods may not naturally contain gluten, people suffering from celiac disease could experience a negative reaction simply from those oats being in the proximity of the gluten-containing foods processed at the same plant. So while it’s probably unnecessary for a bottle of water to boast a gluten free label, for someone with celiac disease a GF label on a canister of oats could be the difference between painful side-effects and living a normal life. But even if one isn’t afflicted by celiac, gluten can still wreak on the system if you happen to have a sensitivity.

What foods contain gluten?

Sadly, most processed foods contain gluten:

  • Beer and other malt beverages
  • Pasta
  • Breads
  • Pastries
  • Cereals
  • Crackers
  • Cookies
  • Many sauces
  • Many forms of granola
  • Breading
  • Flour tortillas
  • Crusts
  • Foods processed in facilities that also process wheat

Celiac vs. sensitive

So… what exactly is celiac disease? Approximately 3 million Americans — roughly 1% of the population — suffers from this autoimmune disorder, which damages the small intestine, causing pain, mood swings, and other challenging symptoms. When a person suffering from celiac disease eats gluten-containing foods, their body triggers an immune response similar to what would happen if a virus entered the body. In this case, the immune system attacks the small intestine, damaging the interior lining and preventing the absorption of nutrients. This lack of important nutrients can cause a host of issues and deficiencies, so if you’re suspicious that you could be suffering from celiac disease, the best thing to do is see your doctor. But while only about 1% of the population suffers from actual celiac disease, far more people suffer from a sensitivity to gluten, which can cause similar symptoms and a host of issues. Similar to those with celiac, a gluten sensitivity can cause bloating in the stomach, stomach cramps, brain fog and intestinal permeability, which is when the lining of the small intestine becomes compromised, allowing food particles and toxins to breach the intestinal lining and make their way into the bloodstream. Not pretty. So yes, only a small population suffers from celiac disease itself, many more of us could be experiencing the effects of gluten without fully realizing it.

How do I know if I need to avoid gluten?

Even though gluten sensitivity is far more common than celiac disease, it’s important to bear in mind that there’s a whole host of other foods than can cause similar symptoms. Alcohol, sugar, dairy, other grains, and even legumes (yes, beans too) can all cause intestinal permeability, brain fog, systemic inflammation and joint pain. The best way to find out whether these foods negatively affect you? Eliminating them from your diet completely for a set period of time and then intentionally adding them back in and recording the results. You can do this on your own through a Whole 30 or similar program, but if you suspect you may have an honest to goodness allergy or be suffering from celiac disease, it’s best to consult a doctor.

Gluten has earned itself an unnecessarily bad rap over the past several years. While it can wreak havoc on a small percentage of the population, the foods that contain it also boast a variety of benefits, including dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, and it’s important to remember that other foods, even the ones we deem the best of the best (coconut oil, anyone?) can cause issues for those unlucky enough to be allergic to them. As for me, I believe strongly in moderation. Through several Whole 30’s I’ve learned that I can tolerate gluten without pain, but it does have a tendency to leave me feeling bloated and tired. I won’t be cutting it out completely, but it’s now reserved for only the most incredible foods and the occasional baking endeavor. What about you? Do you eat gluten? Have you found that you’re sensitive or even afflicted by celiac? Please share!

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This information is not intended to treat, diagnose or prevent any disease or issue. 
Please seek your doctor’s advice for any questions regarding a specific condition and before beginning any exercise, diet or health-related regimen.

Comments

  1. Just wondering why you think it is unnecessary to have GF chocolate or chips. We coeliacs enjoy these ‘sometimes’ foods and is good to have a GF option.

  2. The protein in oats, avenin, can sometimes cause a similar reaction in people as gluten, another reason for being careful with oats, as GF oats may still cause a reaction. I do miss my winter porridge but have found some cereals that do when I really crave a warm breakfast :-)

  3. I’ve done vegan and gluten-free cleanses multiple times and I always thought it was dairy that was making me bloated/backed up but as soon as I cut almost all grains (save my daily oatmeal and maybe a little potato or a gluten-free baked good) I feel WORLDS better! I feel like my body was just trying to tell me they are too hard to digest and I wasn’t able to extract any nutrients from these foods anyway. Long live the gluten-free diet! ;-)

  4. i’m gluten sensitive — been so since 2011 — i basically eat a paleo diet now – lots of meat, veggies and fruit. i feel super healthy and i’m in great shape. you can find those nutrients in gluten in other food sources too. as a pasta lover, i have been thrilled to find amazing/cheap/sturdy and gluten-free noodles at trader joe’s.

  5. Some good information but I am sad to see that this article doesn’t emphasize that these ” gluten intolerances” may actually be linked to the use of “round up” in our wheat or the fact that these intolerances are emerging more frequently is because of the excess processing of breads and gluten containing products (the quality of gluten)and not the gluten itself. Some people that I know that have had gluten intolerances tried out fernenting their own sourdough at home with stone ground einkorn flour and found that their bodies could process it easier due to the quality of the wheat and the fermentation process!
    Thanks for the article!

  6. I hate when people consider this “going gluten-free” diet to loose weight. In 2005 I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I struggled with what foods I could and could not eat, it was depressing. Today I still, somewhat struggle with it. Yes there are products out there that are gluten free but taste terribly. Plus some people believe by eating gulten free foods will help loose weight and healthiest way to thing to do. Not true. Those that can eat “normally”, I envy you. This is not a fad diet.

  7. My “trick” is baking my own wholegrain breads using a sourdough starter. Fermenting grains makes all the difference!! Sourdough is the best. I use it to make pancakes, muffins, crackers, cookies as well.

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