Gluten: Mortal Frenemy?

Gluten has been getting a lot of attention of late, as celebrities and health practitioners promote the benefits of a gluten-free diet, while other medical professionals and nutritionists taut it as a necessary nutrient and poo-poo the recent rise of gluten-free eating trends. With all the confusion, questions about gluten are ones I receive most often from my clients and readers.  What exactly is gluten?  Is it bad for everyone?  What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?  Do I need to eliminate gluten? Read on to demystify this food once and for all.
What is gluten, and why is it problematic?
Gluten is a protein composite present in many breads, grains, and cereals like wheat, barley, and rye, as well as many vegetarian meat-substitutes.  It has a gluey texture that holds together dough and can give a hearty texture to fake meats.  It is this same gluey substance that can gum up the sensitive microvilli that line our intestinal walls, causing a whole slew of uncomfortable symptoms ranging from bloating and gas to malnutrition, skin problems, chronic fatigue, depression and even autism (you can find a more exhaustive list below).  As estimated 1 in 133 people have a genetic predisposition to the more sever end of these problems (see Celiac’s Disease Foundation for more information), others have a legitimate allergic reaction to wheat, but for most people (an estimated 1 in 20 Americans), sensitivity to gluten is a bi-product of an already damaged gut.  Diets high in processed foods, sugar, and alcohol that are low in nutrient- and fiber-rich foods can increase mucus in the intestines, making it very difficult to comfortably digest gluten (as well as dairy and soy).  Prolonged use of antibiotics and exposure to environmental toxins can also cause this damage to occur.  The recent rise in awareness and diagnosis of gluten-related disorders is due in no small part to these factors now being so much more present in our daily lives.  Eliminating these co-factors from our diet and lifestyles (in addition to temporarily eliminating gluten and other irritant foods) can give the damaged gut a chance to heal, and thereby, help us to again enjoy glutenous foods (in moderation).  So, in short, gluten is usually not, in itself, unhealthy. 

Do I suffer from a gluten sensitivity?

As I hinted at above, eating glutenous foods can have terrible effects on a body that has an already damaged gut, wheat allergy, or genetic predisposition toward Celiac’s disease.  The symptoms in all three of these cases tend to overlap quite a bit, so determining which you may be suffering from might require some professional guidance.  Symptoms of gluten sensitivity can include:

  • Abdominal cramping and bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Anemia
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Joint pain
  • Eczema
  • Fatigue, low energy, and weakness
  • Asthma or other breathing problems
  • Infertility and irregular menstrual cycle
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Autism
If you regularly experience any of the above, do a little experiment:  completely eliminate gluten from your diet for 2 weeks, and see if the condition improves.  If it does, well, there’s your answer.  If a lifetime of avoiding gluten doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, work with a holistic practitioner to naturally heal your intestinal villi and gradually incorporate gluten back into your diet.  If you are diagnosed with Celiac’s, I’m sorry, but the GF life is the life for you.  But there are so many delicious alternatives to gluten out there now, that with a little guidance, I promise, you won’t even miss it!
A lot of people just assume that experiencing these symptoms is normal, and ignore what their bodies are telling them.  In addition to being generally unpleasant, letting these symptoms go untreated can lead to much worse issues down the road… Left untreated for long periods of time, a gluten intolerance can lead to osteoporosis, neurological disorders, bowel cancer, and diabetes. So if you even suspect that gluten may be the culprit of any of the above symptoms, definitely try eliminating it for a period of time and see how you feel.  (And as always, feel free to contact me if you need more guidance.)

I don’t have any of these symptoms, but isn’t a gluten-free diet healthier?
There is no easy answer to this, but in short, no.  Gluten is not inherently unhealthy.  That being said, SO many people suffer from gluten sensitivities that they are not even aware of and a slew of related symptoms that avoiding it can be a great relief.  For those that have established that gluten is not an issue for them, there is no direct benefit from avoiding it.  I have found, however, that there are those for whom wheat can have a negative impact on weight.  If you find that wheat and wheat products make up a large portion of your diet, going gluten-free can have the nice little side effect of helping you cut down on processed grains, particularly those with white flour (which have a direct impact on weight gain).  Gluten-free grains like quinoa are super high in protein and other beneficial nutrients, making them definitely preferable to common wheat-based foods like pasta and white breads, and if going gluten-free helps to make the transition to healthier grains, then it could be a great choice!  For those looking to lose weight, going gluten-free can also help a lot with making healthier choices when eating out (ie: a vegetable dish over pasta with cheese) and traveling (ie: some dried fruit or nuts instead of pretzels).
Ok, I want to go GF.. But what do I eat?
Just walk down the aisle at your local Whole Foods or health food store and you’ll see what a huge market GF has become.  Everything from breads to pastas, cookies to flours (even chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream!) are now available gluten-free.  BUT, if you’ll notice, all of those foods I listed should definitely not be topping out the list of what we should be consuming regularly.  As with any healthy diet, the bulk of what we eat should be home-cooked, where we have control over the ingredients we use.  There are so many amazing websites and cookbooks full of delicious gluten-free recipes (Gluten Free Goddess is a personal favorite of mine) that it’s really just a matter of readjusting the ingredients you use regularly, and you can still enjoy all of your favorite meals!  

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the process of making the transition to a gluten-free diet, or need help determining if you might have a gluten sensitivity, I can help!  Check out NU Health & Wellness for more information.
Sources:
Beck, Melinda (2011).  Clues to Gluten Sensitivity, The Wall Street Journal

Photo from Milk for the Morning Cake