Some call it a real health concern. Others call it a fad. Gluten-intolerance seems to be everywhere and the marketplace is exploding with new, gluten-free products. We’ll decode just exactly what’s going on with gluten and help you understand if cutting back on gluten products is right for you.
What, exactly, is gluten?
Gluten is a protein, found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. This means that most breads and bread-like products (including crackers, cakes, pastas, croutons, and tortillas) contain gluten. Gluten is also used as an additive in other products, such as a thickening agent in soups and Asian sauces.
What’s so bad about it?
For most people, nothing. But for some, gluten agitates their digestive system, leading to discomfort, bloating or in severe cases, celiac disease. And for some, it can cause a systemic inflammatory response.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease wherein the body attacks the small intestine due to the presence of gluten. Symptoms include anemia, skin rashes, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, acid reflux, joint pain, numbness in the hands and feet, or heartburn. However, a study conducted by experts at the Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Health and estimated that up to 1 in 141 adults in the United States have the disease, but many have no symptoms and therefore go undiagnosed.
Celiac disease can be suddenly activated by events that are traumatic to the body, such as childbirth, surgery, viral infections, or emotional stress. The disease is detected through a blood test and is generally treated by adopting and maintaining a gluten-free diet for the rest of one’s life.
Is it possible to be sensitive to gluten without testing positive for celiac disease? Yes. Though lesser in severity, it’s possible to be gluten-sensitive rather than having full-blown gluten-intolerance, though some researchers debate this.
For those with robust gastrointestinal health, ingesting gluten is not problematic. However, many health-conscious people want to reduce the amount of gluten in their diets and luckily, with a little knowledge and some slight adjustments to your shopping habits, there are many ways to adopt a reduced-gluten lifestyle that might make life easier on your GI tract.
The good news is that lots of foods contain no gluten. Here’s a list of naturally gluten-free products:
- Beans, seeds, nuts (stay away from those that are processed or heavily salted)
- Fresh meats, fish, and poultry
- Fruits and vegetables
- Most other dairy products
In other good news, many companies have developed gluten-free alternatives to some of your favorite foods, like pastas and breads. However, if you want to reduce gluten and are trying gluten-free products, look closely at ingredients and nutritional information because some of these products can be loaded with saturated fat, sugar, or sodium–all of which come with their own health considerations.
Many gluten-based products contain lots of beneficial nutrients that should not be eliminated from your diet. Therefore, if you are thinking of reducing or eliminating gluten in your diet, speak to a nutrition expert first to outline a reduced-gluten or gluten-free diet that is best for your health and wellness needs.