I recently watched a Jimmy Kimmel video in which they asked pedestrians if they maintained a gluten-free diet. If the person said yes, they then asked what gluten is. None of the people questioned knew what gluten was even though they professed to maintaining a gluten-free diet. Products in the grocery store and recipes also exclaim to us, “Gluten-Free!” Oftentimes these products or recipes are gluten-free simply because none of the ingredients in them would have ever contained gluten even conventionally made. Surveys have shown that people perceive a gluten-free diet to be healthier, but why? What is all the fuss about gluten and the gluten-free diet?
First of all, it’s important to understand what gluten actually is, unlike the people mentioned above. Gluten is a family of proteins (and proteins are long chains of amino acids) present most notably in wheat – gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the protein which causes issues for those with celiac disease, and it is also found in barley, rye, spelt, kamut, bulgur, farro, and oats. Gliadin causes an autoimmune reaction in people who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity where antibodies are produced to attack it. This damages the intestines and causes the symptoms related to the disease or sensitivity.
However, this is only true for individuals who actually have these medical conditions. For the rest of us, it has the potential to be detrimental. Gluten is actually beneficial to our bodies. It has also been shown to support the healthy bacteria in the digestive system, improve blood pressure, and improve triglycerides. Gluten-free diets are very restrictive and involve cutting out nutritious foods. To undertake one casually may result in a lack of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, particularly B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Also, there are often additives put into gluten-free alternatives such as fat and sugar, and a study from the Journal of Medicinal Food has found that a gluten-free diet “seems to increase the risk of overweight or obesity.”
Only 1% of the population worldwide and approximately 7% of Americans suffer from celiac disease. For these people, a gluten-free diet is essential. As for the rest of us, I believe we can eat gluten, in moderation as with anything else, without fear or guilt as part of a healthy and nutritious diet.
Note: If you think you may actually have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the only way to find out is by medical testing through a blood test and then a biopsy. See your doctor if you are concerned.
Do you eat gluten?