Is almost everyone you know trying to be gluten free these days? Are you wondering if you should get on a gluten free diet, too? Although all of us would have healthier diets if we reduced the amount of bread and baked goodies we eat each day, dietary gluten itself isn’t harmful for most people. In truth it’s mainly people diagnosed with celiac disease (a slim minority of the general population), as well as some dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, who need really to be concerned about avoiding gluten altogether.
Breads made from wheat based flour have been staple foods of the human diet for ages. Yet over the past decade or so, the demand for gluten-free foods has grown incredibly, and today whole sections in grocery store aisles and cold cases are devoted to gluten free offerings.
Isn’t it time to find out what you really need to know about gluten?
Here is what wheat based gluten actually is: two different proteins, gliadin and glutenin, combined to hold bread together into its desired shaped. In leavened bread, gluten also traps the carbon dioxide that makes the dough rise into fluffy loaves.
Other grains, like rye, contain similar gluten proteins. People who are struggling with celiac disease cannot process any type of gluten, and so need to avoid all its dietary sources. Most others avoid gluten simply by trying to eliminate foods containing wheat or wheat flour.
What the wheat-avoiders may not realize is that gluten appears in many foods, including couscous, semolina, spelt and farro. Malt, an ingredient common in milkshakes and malt vinegar, contains gluten, and commercially ground spices may contain wheat flour or wheat starch. Unexpected gluten in foods like soy sauce, candy, salad dressings, and even french fries can cause real problems for folks with celiac disease.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, eating gluten causes an immune response in celiac patients, resulting in severe distress to the small intestine. The lining of the small intestine undergoes damage as a result, and nutrients cannot be absorbed. The Mayo Clinic connects this malabsorption of nutrients to a host of health issues, from indigestion and excessive weight loss, to nervous system and internal organ disorders.
That’s why people with celiac disease must be on guard to avoid gluten in their diets. Most other people really don’t have cause for worry. In fact, according to a 2013 article published in Scientific American, a gluten free diet can deprive most people of the healthy fibers and minerals we typically get from whole grain.
Still, there’s a growing perception that gluten sensitivity may be behind more widespread conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A 2011 Monash University study first presented the concept of gluten sensitivity: gastrointestinal problems caused by dietary gluten but not to the severity of those associated with celiac disease. However, a follow-up study at Monash a few years later found that gluten did not have a much effect on people with IBS. This second study identified FODAPS – “Fermentable Oligo-saccharides Di-saccharides Mono-saccharides and Polyols” – as the culprit in aggravating IBS. Eliminating foods like garlic, onions, processed meat, and dairy products improved symptoms of IBS patients, who could do fine by including buckwheat flour and porridge in their diets.
The line between IBS and celiac disease is somewhat unclear. A 2012 study of nearly 8,000 people found that 35 of the subjects had the antibodies present in celiac, almost all of whom had no inkling that they had the disorder. Further tests are underway to discover whether IBS patients experiencing gluten sensitivity, may in fact be suffering from undiagnosed celiac disease.
Celiac disease and IBS have similar symptoms. Gluten-free diets are a must for celiac patients, and can help some IBS patients as well. The greater problem is that celiac disease may be misdiagnosed at first as gastroenteritis, anxiety, depression, ulcers, and appendicitis.
Before starting on a gluten free diet, ask your doctor about testing for indicators for celiac disease and IBS. Again, reducing bread and other bakery foods will definitely improve your diet, but you may not necessarily need to go totally gluten free.