Gluten gets a lot of attention, and there’s crazy amounts of information floating around about it. Gluten-free products are filling the shelves in health food aisles, and gluten-free dieters are pronouncing it’s magic on all airwaves.
But, is eating gluten-free actually healthy?
The answer to that may be more complicated than you think. Essentially, it boils down to this: it depends on the individual. Gluten affects each person differently. In order to understand if and when a gluten free diet may be beneficial, we first have to look at what gluten is and how our bodies handles it.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and some other grains. When wheat is ground into flour, or barley brewed into hops, gluten makes its way into many of our staple foods and beverages. These food include breads, pasta, pizza crusts, burritos, barley-based beers and ales, and many, many others.
Most people can digest the gluten protein without a problem. Our bodies produce digestive enzymes to help break down all proteins (and fats, and carbohydrates). Unless they have celiac or an enzyme deficiency, most people do not experience any very limiting or upsetting problems when they eat gluten. Their digestive system produces an enzyme which breaks it apart and allows it to be absorbed into the body, along with all their other food.
However, for people with a gluten intolerance (also known as celiac disease) this process isn’t the same. Their bodies don’t react typically to the gluten protein — the protein itself sets off “threat alarms,” which in turn create an immune response that’s both painful and damaging to the digestive system. If a person with celiac disease ingests gluten, they can experience extreme abdominal pain and acute diarrhea in the following hours. If they continue to eat it, in the following months or years the immune response will damage their small intestine permanently and inhibit their ability to absorb nutrients. Anyone with celiac disease will tell you: if you’re gluten intolerant, a gluten-free diet is necessary for healthy, comfortable living.
A related but different condition can occur because of a simple food allergy. Celiac disease sufferers have an immune reaction to gluten itself — whether it’s in wheat, barley, or some other grain. There are some people who have a wheat allergy, and experience allergy symptoms when they encounter wheat, either as a grain, field plant, or grass. These symptoms can range from an anaphylactic reaction where the person’s throat, face, and tongue swell and they experience difficulty breathing, to a less severe allergic reaction that can be anything from a stuffy nose to hives.
Wheat allergy sufferers may or may not need to cut wheat out of their diet altogether, depending on the type and severity of their reaction. Their doctor may recommend cutting back or cutting out wheat, they may recommend monitoring their symptoms and only cutting out wheat if they start to become severe, or they may simply suggest taking a daily allergy medicine. Gluten found in other grains won’t trigger a reaction in people with a wheat allergy, so gluten itself is not something they need to avoid.
Other people, however, who do not have celiac disease or an allergy to wheat, may experience what’s commonly known as a gluten sensitivity. This is something that’s looked into once celiac disease and a wheat allergy have both been ruled out. These people report that gluten affects them negatively, both in overall health and wellness and also in their energy levels. For example, some people report bloating and gas when they ingest gluten, others report that it gives them a “rock in the stomach” feeling, like they haven’t digested their food. Still others find that ingesting gluten doesn’t affect their gastric tract immediately, but makes them feel sluggish and slow in body and mind hours later.
For those with a gluten sensitivity, cutting out gluten isn’t absolutely necessary, but many find that they feel better when avoiding it.
This sensitivity is what has grabbed our attention — and the attention of the mainstream population, the attention of health food marketers, and the attention of the restaurant industry. We delved into the ifs and the wherefores to attempt to sort out the what’s what’s of the thing. If you have ruled out celiac and a wheat allergy, looking into a gluten sensitivity might be worth your time.
A gluten sensitivity occurs when a person who ingests gluten experiences unpleasant symptoms that are not present when they don’t. The body may have trouble processing gluten efficiently and absorbing the underlying nutrients in the gluten-containing foods. This leads to unwanted side effects of gastrointestinal distress and lethargy.
If you’ve been wondering: do I have a gluten sensitivity? It may be a difficult question to answer. When we get gassy we don’t typically think to ourselves “ugh I have gastointestinal distress,” we think “I feel gassy.” This is why gluten sensitivities often go unnoticed.
Instead of asking yourself “do I experience gastrointestinal distress?” ask yourself some more simple questions. Think back to the last time you had a big bowl of pasta or indulged in a stack of pancakes. Did you experience bloating, stomach upset, or flatulence? Did you feel lethargic, like you had “heavy limbs,” or have less energy than usual for the rest of the day? How did you feel mentally? Were your thoughts coming in quick and clean, or a little foggy?
After you take a moment to think about it, if you think you may have a gluten sensitivity it might be worth a conversation with your doctor at the next check-up.
The simplest treatment for a gluten sensitivity is to stop consuming gluten. This is done by going through your diet bit by bit and eliminating all foods that contain gluten. It may sound intimidating at first, but if you attack it bit by bit you’ll find it isn’t as hard as you think. Start with breakfast. Move towards foods with an oatmeal base rather than flour, such as granolas and oatmeal itself. Lunch and dinner can be a bit trickier, since that’s when we tend to eat more breads and pastas. Look for replacement options in grocery stores and go for rice-based foods when eating out.
Unfortunately, no matter how much we may want to cut gluten out entirely, for some of us this just isn’t practical. Not only is gluten often part of the base ingredient of some of our staple foods, it’s also often used as a binder to hold foods together. Careful reading of ingredient labels is extremely necessary when eating gluten free.
If an elimination diet just isn’t a do-able solution for you, you might consider simply cutting back to reduce digestive tract inflammation.
Another option for managing a gluten sensitivity is to supplement your diet with a digestive enzyme. Occasionally our bodies may have trouble producing the specific enzymes that break down one protein or another, including gluten. If you suspect this is what’s causing your gluten sensitivity, then taking a digestive enzyme may be a viable solution. Digestive enzymes supplements are designed to break down food in the body and get it ready to be absorbed and used.
If you get the right digestive enzyme, you may find it helps out in other areas of your digestion as well. Some digestive enzyme supplements will also help with the break down of milk proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils, or proteins found in chicken, beef, and other meats. What this may mean for you is if you have a slight sensitivity to another food, the supplement may help to relieve symptoms from that as well.
Whether you fall somewhere on the spectrum of intolerance / sensitivity or you’re merely interested in maintaining your digestive tract health, giving gluten a little attention may be worthwhile.