Gluten: Good or Bad?
The gluten-free diet has been a popular trend these past few years. Many people have made this switch based on the supposed health benefits that come with it. However, there is not much evidence to back up these claims. Is gluten really the enemy? Do people without a gluten-related medical condition need to avoid it?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is a component of wheat, barley and rye. It can be found in a variety of food items and can help food hold its shape. This is why gluten-free alternatives such as breads can be more crumbly. It’s important to note that gluten is often in foods that you would not expect, such as soy sauce and processed meats. To be safe, always check the ingredients list on packaged food items to see if the product has gluten.
Who Needs to Avoid Gluten?
Despite more recent health claims, not everyone needs to remove gluten from their diet. Those who have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy do need to. Before making any changes to your diet, it's important to always consult a doctor first.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten-containing foods, their immune system reacts and damages the small intestine. This causes a decrease in the absorption of other nutrients. This condition is diagnosed by a doctor.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition that has similar symptoms to celiac disease, however the small intestine is not being damaged. There is not much definitive research on gluten sensitivity and there is not a diagnostic test to determine if someone has it.
Wheat allergy occurs when the immune system sees wheat as an illness-causing pathogen, such as bacteria or viruses, instead of food. An allergic reaction occurs that can cause a variety of symptoms such as difficulty breathing.
Are There Downsides to Being Gluten-Free Without a Diagnosed Gluten Intolerance or Allergy?
A gluten-free diet comes with several risks that aren’t often talked about. This is why it’s important to work with the doctor or registered dietitian that has prescribed the diet to you. They can help you to avoid some of these risks:
A nutrient deficiency can occur while on the gluten-free diet. Many wheat containing products are fortified, meaning they have vitamins and minerals added to them. This helps the general population get enough of these nutrients. When gluten is removed from the diet, so are the fortified wheat products. If you don’t eat more foods that have those nutrients, you are at risk for a deficiency.
Low Fiber Intake
Fiber can be lacking in a gluten-free diet, as many food items that contain gluten also have a high fiber content. Other sources of fiber need to be consumed, such as beans and nuts. If you are having trouble making up for the lost fiber in your diet, speak to your doctor or a dietitian.
Buying gluten-free foods can be more expensive than buying foods with gluten. Products that are not naturally gluten free, such as bread and pasta, eliminate the gluten by making them with a more expensive ingredient that replaces it, such as brown rice flour.
What Can I Eat and What Should I Avoid on the Gluten-Free Diet?
There are many foods that naturally do not contain gluten, such as:
Fruits and vegetables
Fresh meat, fish and poultry
Seeds and nuts
Rice and quinoa
Some items typically contain gluten and should be avoided. You will need to find a gluten-free alternative for these foods. These items include:
There is a long list of foods that could contain gluten. Always check the nutrition facts label and read the ingredient list. This is the best way to find out if an item has gluten or not.
So, is Gluten Good or Bad?
Gluten only needs to be avoided if someone has one of the conditions listed above. Otherwise, it is a safe part of your diet and foods containing gluten can provide essential nutrients and fiber.
Written by: Rachel Kairis, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern