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What You Need to Know About Gluten

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Genevieve Cunningham

Facts About Gluten

Even if you pay little attention to health trends or diets, you’ve undoubtedly heard the word gluten. For a little over a decade, gluten has become a really popular topic in the health and wellness world. Gluten-free food items are all over the shelves, and more and more people are openly discussing their gluten-free lifestyles. But for most people, that’s where the understanding of gluten ends. What is it? Why are we taking it out of foods? And most importantly, should I be avoiding gluten?

Before jumping on the gluten-free train, take a look at what you need to know before hopping aboard.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a structural protein found in certain grains. It’s the general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, and triticale. Gluten behaves like a glue and helps many foods hold their shape. These proteins are naturally found in various foods. Besides their natural occurrence, we can also add them to foods for extra protein and texture, and we can remove them from foods for those who are gluten sensitive or intolerant.

Where Is Gluten Commonly Found in Our Diets?

Although many think that staying away from bread keeps them away from gluten, that’s not the case. There are many foods that naturally contain gluten, some of which you may not expect.

  • Bread - This is the obvious gluten product, and it’s worth remembering. Unless labeled gluten-free bread, it most likely contains gluten in varying amounts.
  • Pasta - Pasta is a wheat-based product, meaning it contains gluten. Just like bread, you can generally find a gluten-free alternative if needed.
  • Cereal - Some cereal has gluten and others don’t, but you really can’t tell just by looking at the picture on the front. You’ll need to check the labels to see whether a particular cereal is wheat based.
  • Baked goods - Unfortunately, most of the sweet products that we all enjoy have gluten. Cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, muffins, and cupcakes all fall under this category. There are gluten-free baked goods, but you may have to request it in advance.
  • Popular snacks - Crackers, pretzels, and chips usually have gluten. If you need to stay gluten-free, you may need to stay away from these snack options.

Why is Gluten Such a Popular Subject Nowadays?

Depending on your age, you may or may not remember a time when gluten was really never discussed. Although the first gluten-free diet was discovered and used as a medical treatment in the 1940s, it’s only since about 2010 that gluten has become such a hot topic. But why?

Researchers believe the rise in gluten content has two main sources: trends and gut health. It’s no secret that society follows trends, and gluten has been and continues to be quite a hot topic. The gluten-free diet is one that is low on bread and carbohydrates in general. This has led many to substantial weight loss, which makes the trend even more popular.

The focus on gut health has been more about true wellness than popularity. Because we better understand the importance of gut health, we also understand that it affects everything else. Once we really started to take a look at the gut, it became apparent that many, about one percent of the U.S. population, had celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine’s ability to digest gluten. And an additional 6 percent suffered from gluten sensitivity. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder the popularity of all things gluten continues to climb.

What Are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?

Although celiac disease affects a significant portion of the population, you may or may not actually know anyone with it. And if you’ve never been exposed to it in real life, you may not be aware of the symptoms to watch for. People with celiac disease often suffer from similar symptoms.

  • Digestive issues - This may be in the form of constant constipation or constant diarrhea. Either way, it can feel as if the digestive problems never settle.
  • Abdominal pain - It’s common for gluten-intolerant people to suffer from a fair amount of abdominal pain. You may notice bloating and cramping any time gluten is ingested.
  • Skin Issues - What’s happening on the inside often manifests on the outside. Those who can’t process gluten may experience breakouts, dry skin, or conditions such as dermatitis herpetiformis.
  • Weight loss - People with celiac disease can’t absorb nutrients in the small intestine properly, which may lead to dramatic weight loss or an inability to gain weight.
  • Delayed growth - Children who suffer from the disease may experience a delay in growth.
  • Decline in mental health - Due to the suffering and the malnutrition that can come from celiac disease, many experience anxiety, depression, or other declines in mental health.

Although most people experience some discomfort with the disease, it’s possible to experience very few symptoms -- or even none at all. Sometimes it’s confused with a wheat allergy, which is not the same thing, so it’s important to get medical treatment if you suspect a problem. Getting a final diagnosis, and a subsequent treatment plan, for celiac disease requires a doctor’s care, a blood test, and a special diet.

Is There a Connection Between Gluten and Autoimmune Conditions?

Because celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder itself, doctors know that it is positively linked to an immune system that mistakenly attacks itself. People with celiac disease may be prone to having or developing other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders, and autoimmune liver disease.

It’s also been shown that celiac disease has a genetic component. If you have family members who suffer from it, you are more likely to have it as well. This is similar to other autoimmune conditions, most of which have some kind of genetic component.

What Does a Gluten-Free Diet Look Like?

A gluten-free diet is much easier in today’s world than in times past. Years ago, it would have taken a lot of planning and creativity to ensure a well-balanced, gluten-free diet. But now? Finding gluten-free products is easy. They’re at most grocery stores, certainly in health food stores, and if all else fails, they can be found online. Besides gluten-free breads, pasta, and sweets, a gluten-free diet may contain the following foods which are naturally gluten free:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Meat
  • Beans
  • Seeds
  • Eggs

The truth is that anything that doesn’t include gluten can be included in a gluten-free diet. If you’re unsure, your doctor can get you pointed in the right direction.

Should Everyone Avoid Gluten?

Gluten can cause real problems for people with an intolerance, so you may wonder if everyone should avoid gluten just to be on the safe side. Not at all. Only those with a diagnosed intolerance need to steer clear of gluten, although anyone can follow the diet of their choosing.

Gluten can be tricky to understand. There’s so much buzz around it, it’s hard to separate the good advice from the noise. But for most people, it’s all unnecessary. Only those with an intolerance or sensitivity really need to worry about removing gluten from their lives. For everyone else, eating gluten is fine. The gluten discussion has changed so much over the years, and it’s likely to continue to change as we get more information. Stay informed so that you can stay on top of your diet and health -- gluten or not.

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