What is gluten and why aren’t people eating it?
Don’t be fooled. Going on a gluten-free diet will not help you lose weight. However, many people have found relief from Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity by avoiding gluten in their food.
You’ve no doubt seen foods advertised as “gluten-free” and may know someone who’s gone gluten free to improve their health. So, just what is gluten and is it bad for you? How do you know if you have a sensitivity? What can you eat if you can’t eat gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale that gives food an elastic, chewy consistency. One fifth of the world’s calories come from wheat. While production of wheat has decreased in the past few years due to increasing concern over gluten, nearly 200 pounds of wheat have been harvested per person worldwide in recent years and will likely never go away, as it’s a grain that’s easy to grow, store, and ship. Known to be found in bread, cereal, pasta, and crackers, it’s also hiding in countless other processed foods including soups, sauces, meats, and snacks. In fact, a third of foods found in grocery stores contain a wheat ingredient of some sort.
Why No Gluten?
For most of the population, gluten poses no health risk. A small percentage of people are gluten-intolerant or have a sensitivity. Even fewer people have Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that’s triggered by gluten. When these individuals eat gluten, it damages the villi (tiny projections that absorb nutrients from food) in the small intestine so they’re no longer able to do their job.
A gluten intolerance causes unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms (gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation) as soon as gluten is eaten. When a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, he or she may or may not have these symptoms in addition to depression, irritability, joint pain, anemia, weight loss, mouth sores, or rash. See a gastroenterologist to determine if you’re allergic to gluten or have Celiac disease.
Some are suspicious that people with irritable bowel syndrome are more sensitive to gluten, that gluten is associated with certain brain disorders like autism and schizophrenia, and that it’s linked to other autoimmune disorders. In the event you’re suffering from any of these conditions, you may do well to go on a gluten-free diet for a month to see if your symptoms improve.
What Can You Eat?
People with Celiac disease or another condition affected by gluten are much better off today then they were five or more years ago. A growing number of grocery stores are carrying a variety of gluten-free products, so you no longer have to feel deprived of foods like pancakes, pasta, pizza, or cookies. Without gluten-free products, you’re safest to shop the outer edges of your grocery store where you’ll find naturally gluten-free foods such as fresh produce, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish.
Gluten-free eating generally means cooking your meals from scratch. Eating processed foods or eating out can be difficult. Unless it’s advertised as gluten-free, consider it off limits. Wheat and wheat flour can go by many different names so you must learn how to meticulously read nutrition labels on packaged foods. Smartphone users may do well to download a gluten-free app to guide food choices.
Additionally, people who go on a gluten-free diet for one reason or another must watch their diets to ensure they’re eating enough of the right kind of nutrients including fiber, iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and folate. Otherwise, these vitamins and minerals are often extremely lacking, putting the gluten-free person in harm’s way.