Gluten might seem like the latest buzzword in dietary trends. Indeed, it’s hard to scroll through Pinterest or read a restaurant menu and not see the letters “GF” somewhere in the description. So what is gluten?
For a long while, guten had primarily been associated with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. Celiac disease impacts the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients, which can lead to gastronomical issues and pain. Those with celiac disease typically lead gluten-free lifestyles because of the damage it can cause internally.
Despite the fact that the number of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease has not risen over recent years, the percentage of people following a gluten-free lifestyle has nearly tripled in a five-year span – rising from just 0.5% of the population in 2009, to nearly 2% in 2014.
If there are no notable increases in the amount of people diagnosed with celiac disease, why does the word “gluten” seem to be everywhere? Is it really as unhealthy as your friends and family say?
We’ll explain what gluten is, which foods and drinks have it, and what it does to those with gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten refers to the proteins found in cereal grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It’s found in the endosperm, a part of the seed that’s responsible for developing the plant embryo. This seed is what is ultimately ground up into grain flour. Gluten also affects dough’s elasticity, acting as the glue that holds it together.
These grains are commonly used to make bread, pasta, cakes and other products made with flour. However, some not-so-obvious foods contain gluten as well. Those with gluten sensitivity also need to exercise caution with soups, sausages, ice cream, soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces – even beer.
Thankfully (for those with gluten sensitivity), not all grains contain gluten. Healthy alternatives include brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, wild rice, and oats. Potatoes, beans, and nuts are also gluten-free.
Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease
Though sometimes used interchangeably, there is a difference between gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. Each involves a different set of responses to this protein, though they often have similar symptoms.
People with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can experience a range of symptoms after ingesting gluten, including gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, depression, and joint pain.
For those with celiac disease, gluten forces the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. In addition to the aforementioned symptoms, the resulting damage can also cause malnutrition, conditions like osteoporosis, and even cancer (though cases are rare).
Since celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, it’s not caused directly by gluten. It’s the immune system’s specific reaction to the protein’s presence that encourages white blood cells to damage the small intestine.
Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is caused by a different reaction. Instead of triggering your immune system to attack its own tissue, it sees gluten as an invader instead. For those with a gluten intolerance, the body combats this attack by inflaming both the inside and outside of your digestive system.
Misconceptions About Gluten
A common misconception about gluten is that it’s “bad” for you. Indeed, for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it’s best to stay away from any products that contain the protein. However, for the majority of the population, there is no credible current research that supports cutting back on gluten as a way to improve health and reduce risks.
“But my friend lost tons of weight after switching to a gluten-free diet!?”
It may be the case that going gluten-free has helped some with weight loss. But think about some of the foods that have gluten – pizza, pasta, bread, beer, etc. These types of foods are loaded with carbohydrates. Any weight loss associated with a gluten-free diet can be attributed to cutting out heavy-carb foods. It has nothing to do with the actual gluten in the food.
Gluten-free foods are also not necessarily healthier than their gluten counterparts. In fact, many of these products are instead stuffed with unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, calories, and sodium. Always be mindful of nutrition labels and use your best judgement before buying a product just because the label says “gluten-free.”
While gluten is not inherently bad, it can be harmful to those with certain dietary issues. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you suspect that you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.