You’re sure to have heard about gluten by now.
Gluten free diets are all the rage at the moment, and everywhere you go, from the grocery store to restaurants, you can find food products labelled gluten free. Everything from bread to cookies to pickles and mayonnaise have those two words emblazoned across the label like a magic spell of healthfulness. But what IS gluten? What does it do in our bodies? Why would we need to avoid it? And will going gluten free solve all of our problems? Let’s look at each of these questions in some detail for a moment.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a family of proteins that is found in certain grain foods like barley, rye, spelt, and most importantly wheat. It’s made up of two main parts-glutenin and gliadin. When these proteins are mixed with water they form a sticky, glue-like substance. This is how bread gets it’s structure and it’s wonderful chewy texture. Wheat is probably the most widely consumed grain in the Standard American Diet (SAD), being found in all breads and baked goods including pastries, cakes, cookies, and doughnuts, as well as pasta. It’s also found in many processed foods like sauces, dressings, and boxed meals. Anything that contains flour as a main ingredient or as a thickener has gluten in some amount.
What does gluten do in our bodies?
This question is hard to answer, because every person reacts differently to foods. Some people can’t eat the tiniest bit of gluten without severe stomach pain, others have reactions like brain fog, joint pain, and thyroid problems without ever connecting those symptoms to the wheat and gluten they’re eating. Still others have no reaction to gluten at all. Those in the first group often have an autoimmune condition called Celiac Disease. When these folks eat any food that has gluten in it their immune system sees it as a foreign invader and kicks into high gear to attack the lining of the gut. The gut is damaged, severe inflammation ensues, and the poor victim is miserable and in pain. If a proper diagnosis isn’t made, they may continue to eat the offending food, and the problem gets worse. People in the second group might not have Celiac Disease, but are still sensitive to gluten. Their symptoms can manifest in all kinds of different ways and in different body systems besides digestion, like skin problems, hormonal issues, and cognition. People in the third group can eat gluten without any direct effect, but that’s not the end of the story for them.
Why would we need to avoid gluten?
It should be obvious why people with Celiac Disease or are sensitive to gluten should avoid it. They suffer real and painful consequences. But what about those who don’t fall into those groups? Should they stop eating wheat? There are lots of reasons why it might be a good idea. Wheat and other grain foods contain lots of refined carbohydrate. They are treated by the body in the same way that sugar is, spiking insulin and leading to possible weight gain and inflammation. Grains like wheat also contain phytic acid, which is considered to be an anti-nutrient, binding to minerals and taking them out of the body before they can be used for the many vital functions they perform. Gluten also has an effect on the gut microbiome. You can read about the gut microbiome in one of my earlier blogs: http://chefamynutrition.com/listen-to-your-gut/ The microbes in the gut don’t like gluten, and all of the things they do for us like help digest our food, manufacture some of our nutrients, and regulate our moods, don’t happen as efficiently when gluten is there disrupting things.
Will going gluten free solve all our problems?
Well, the best answer to that question is…it depends. There are lots of foods that are extremely healthful that don’t contain gluten. Grass fed pastured and organic meat, poultry, and fish are gluten free. So are eggs and dairy products. Vegetables and fruits are naturally gluten free, as are healthful oils and fats. Nuts and seeds are safe. There are some grains that are gluten free, like rice, corn, buckwheat, and quinoa. All of these things require some work, as they are ingredients and you have to cook them yourself, which for many people is a challenge. So those folks going gluten free who don’t or can’t cook often resort to buying ready-made gluten free products. This is where we can run into trouble. Gluten free cookies, breads, rolls, and pastries may not have the offending protein, but they have plenty of highly processed ingredients like rice flour, xanthan gum, tapioca starch, potato starch, and of course sugar. Just because they have no gluten doesn’t mean that they’re healthful. If you’ve decided to go gluten free to lose weight with no effort, eating these products will likely not give you the results you’re looking for.
You are far better off eliminating baked goods entirely than replacing them with processed gluten free options.
This means re-setting your palate not to need those things regularly, which is a big challenge for lots of people who can’t imagine eating a burger with no bun or forgoing their morning toast or pastry. Learning to change your diet to one that is full of nutrition and will help your body to be as healthy as it can be is a long journey, and one that requires lots of trial and error. Stick to real whole foods and you can’t go wrong!