Is gluten really bad for you?

Published July 20, 2021, 5:00 PM

by Dr. Kaycee Reyes

On why some opt it out of their diet

GLUTEN TAG Gluten is a protein found in grains such as rye, barley, and its most common source, wheat

When it comes to popular diets, there’s vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, Paleo, and of course, gluten-free. Nowadays, gluten-free food items are as common as regular ones. Whereas a decade ago, it was almost unheard of unless you had Celiac disease.

Gluten went from the unknown into the mainstream as more studies came to light about gluten sensitivity and people increasingly became aware of it. Celebrities joined in the conversation, and in time, the gluten-free industry grew exponentially, expanding not just from food alternatives but to restaurants, bakeries, and even caterers. So what’s the deal with gluten? Is it just another fad or is this for real?

Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. Wheat is the most common source of gluten. Glutenin and gliadin are the proteins found in wheat flour that add the stretch and rise among many baked goods. Most people can tolerate gluten and eat without complications. There are some, however, whose bodies cannot handle it. These are those with gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, and Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease wherein the lining of the digestive tract (villi) reacts when gluten is consumed. Symptoms include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, fatigue, skin rash or inflammation, mood disorders, headaches, and weight loss. Gluten sensitivity has the same symptoms but without the tissue damage to the intestines. There are no tests yet to determine this condition, but it exists and research is ongoing. A wheat allergy is specifically an intolerance to wheat, but because wheat and gluten go hand in hand, it is best that they avoid gluten as well. In truth, these individuals with Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy only form a very small portion of the population and they would benefit the most from living a gluten-free lifestyle for the rest of their life. That said, these conditions remain underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, which could be the reason an increasing number of individuals reportedly experience improved symptoms or better overall health after adapting to a gluten-free lifestyle.  

Physicians generally do not recommend that healthy individuals go gluten-free. This is because there are a lot of nutrients that are taken away such as fiber, folic acid, and iron. In addition, the widespread availability of sugar-loaded and calorie-dense gluten-free alternatives could raise the risk for other diseases.

There are studies, however, where going gluten-free could be beneficial, even if you’re healthy. A trial was done by Hansen et. al. (2018) among 60 healthy Danish individuals in eight-week interventions of gluten and gluten-free diets with a six-week washout period in between. Both diets maintained dietary fibers, nutrient, and caloric intake. It was found that a low-gluten diet reduced bloating and discomfort with a little bit of weight loss, but researchers also stated that it could be the fiber, not the gluten itself, that could attribute to the positive outcomes. They further conclude that maintaining a gluten-free diet could be possible among healthy individuals, given that there are high-fiber and healthier options available to them.

Food items to avoid in a gluten-free diet include breads and cereals, pasta and noodles, baked goods, such as cookies and cakes, snack foods, such as candy and chips, salad dressings, condiments, such as soy sauce and gravy, beer and selected alcoholic beverages, among others.

Physicians generally do not recommend that healthy individuals go gluten-free. This is because there are a lot of nutrients that are taken away such as fiber, folic acid, and iron.

Allowed in a gluten-free diet are meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, flours and starches, such as almond, oat, rice, and potato flour, grains such as buckwheat, oats, and quinoa, rice such as jasmine, white, brown, and black rice, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices.

To go gluten-free or remain “glued” to gluten—it really depends on you, especially if you are not diagnosed with Celiac disease or a wheat allergy. If you suspect that you are sensitive to gluten, seek a physician’s advice first before eliminating gluten from your diet to get a proper assessment. If you have no issues with gluten but prefer a gluten-free lifestyle, just remember to maintain your nutrition levels, remain physically active, and sleep well.

 
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