Gluten or Gluten-Free: What’s the Big Fuss?

it's hard not to love gluten

In the early 90s, fat-free and low-fat foods began finding their way onto the plates of countless Americans determined to look and feel healthier. The turn of the millennium brought about low-carb crazes like the Atkins and South Beach Diet. Now, the new buzz is gluten-free. An estimated 2.7 million Americans have said  “No more” to foods containing gluten, the supposedly havoc-wreaking wheat proteins, which begs the question:

Is this just the latest food fad, or is there something to be said about the impact of gluten on the human body?

What is Gluten?

Gluten is the general name for the proteins found in wheat endosperm of wheat, barley, rye, semolina, and other foods like whole grains related to wheat. Gluten is used in many foods to help bind the food together and maintain its shape.

Is Gluten Bad for Everyone?

No. People eat breads, cereals, and grains all the time without any negative reaction. Dr. Daniel A. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, believes a big portion of gluten-free dieters will derive no significant benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet. On the other hand, it can be bad for about 1% of Americans who suffer from a condition known as Celiac disease, a disorder caused by an abnormal response to gluten or for those who are gluten-sensitive. And some in the medical community believe that gluten is associated with the onset of many diseases including autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and neurological disorders.

What Does Gluten Intolerance Feel Like?

Believe it or not, symptoms of Celiac disease can be severe enough to land you in an emergency room. Although people react differently to allergens, the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance involve:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritation of the mouth and throat
  • Hives and rash
  • Nasal congestion
  • Eye irritation
  • Difficulty breathing

If you’re frequently experiencing these symptoms or if you’re one of the 2.5 million of patients that seek urgent care for abdominal pain and wind up with a nonspecific diagnosis you should get tested for Celiac disease. It’s estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. The good news for children with wheat allergies is that 65 percent of them will outgrow it by the time they are 12.

What Gluten Does In Your Body

When someone with Celiac disease ingests gluten in bread, crackers, or many other foods, their immune system mistakes it as a foreign invader. Just like people with other autoimmune diseases, people with Celiac disease undergo an immune response that attacks the body. In the case of Celiac, when the body is exposed to gluten, the immune system attacks the small intestine, which includes the small finger-like projections that help with nutrient absorption. When these “villi” get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body. The immune reaction can also lead to degeneration of the intestinal wall and digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, fatigue, and leaky gut. It can also lead to other serious diseases.

Celiac disease can lead to weight loss and vitamin deficiencies that can result in stunted growth and low bone density. Calcium and vitamin D are lost in the stool as well, which can lead to rickets in children (a type of kidney stone), as well as osteomalacia (softening of bones), osteopenia, and osteoporosis.

People who are only sensitive to gluten, on the other hand, won’t have an immune response that attacks the body’s tissues. However, they can still experience bloating, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea, and pain in the bones and joints. There are also findings that suggest cases of neurological illness are linked to gluten consumption. This is called gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy.

Gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy is a disease that results from gliadins and glutelins from food passing into the bloodstream without initially being digested into very small amino acids. This can cause problems in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. People who experience gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy have reported symptoms like migraines, headaches, burning or tingling sensations in your hands or feet, loss of sensation, memory loss, mood changes, epilepsy, poor coordination of muscle movements, and impaired balance.

Is There a Cure for Celiac Disease?

Currently, the only treatment for Celiac disease is a strict, gluten-free diet. Most patients report symptom improvement within a few weeks, although intestinal healing may take several years.

What are Some Naturally Gluten-Free Foods?

You can now find many gluten-free processed foods in the health food section of your grocery store, but there are many foods that are naturally gluten-free. Most non-processed whole foods do not contain gluten including:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Meat
  • Fish and Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Beans, Legumes, and Lentils

What is the Difference Between Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a protein found in the grains of wheat and barley, therefore in order for a food to be gluten-free, it cannot contain wheat or barley. However, wheat-free foods may still contain gluten from other sources like barley, rye, and some oats.

Is it harmful to eat a gluten-free diet?

Eating gluten-free might be the only solution for people suffering from Celiac disease. However, for those without Celiac, eating gluten-free can cause a person to miss some of the vitamins and minerals found in gluten food products like wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn, rye, barley and triticale. If you decide to go gluten-free, talk to your doctor about making sure you are getting enough of key nutrients including iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Many gluten-free foods are healthy, but like with anything else you eat, monitor your portions and make sure you are getting a balance of nutrients. And of course, opt for more naturally gluten-free foods than processed ones.

What are Some Benefits of Eating Gluten-Free?

Those with Celiac disease who eat gluten-free can reduce the risk of a multitude of health complications including infertility, gall bladder disease, and different cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma (intestinal, T- and B-cell types), small intestinal adenocarcinoma, esophageal carcinoma, papillary thyroid cancer, and melanoma.

If you don’t have Celiac disease, a gluten-free diet may encourage you to eat more fruits and vegetables which is obviously great for your health. Eating more fruits and vegetables fills your body with antioxidants and vitamins that help fight off viruses and germs. And because several of the naturally gluten-free foods are non-starchy and free from processed sugars, it can help with weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. There are also recent findings that show the benefits of a gluten free diet on neurological disorders. Studies have shown that patients with schizophrenia, autism, and epilepsy showed improvement with a gluten-free diet.

Talk to Your Doctor

Before you decide to go gluten-free, talk to your doctor about if it is the right path for you. They may be able to share more findings and research with you to help you make the best decision for you and your health.