What is Gluten and is it bad for me?
There has been some confusion about one of the latest fads taking over, so I thought it might be a good topic to discuss on my blog. Lots of people have decided to go “Gluten Free” in recent years and some people believe this is a lower carbohydrate diet than diets containing gluten. So I am going to break it down for you.
Let’s start with the basics…
What is Gluten? Gluten is actually a group of proteins found in wheat that help bind food together and keep its shape (4).
Why Avoid Gluten? There are few reasons people avoid gluten. Number one is Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person has gluten intolerance. When a person with Celiac Disease consumes Gluten, it attacks the lining of their small intestine – leading to issues such as damage to the small intestine, their body doesn’t absorb nutrients from the food as well leading to nutrient deficiencies, and they often experience symptoms like weight loss and diarrhea, not to mention physical pain (1,2). Scary right? Well don’t go all Web MD on me now and self-diagnose… According to research only 1% of the population has Celiac Disease (4). Processed foods contain additives, such as preservatives and extra Gluten to increase shelf life. Number two is Gluten Sensitivity. It is also known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) (1,2). About 6-7% of the population has some form of Gluten Sensitivity (4). Symptons of NCGS include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, headache and fatigue (3). And the third reason people may avoid gluten is, people with other health concerns such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Psoriasis, rheumatologic diseases, or intestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Chrones may benefit from diets that are Gluten Free (4). (1,2,3,4)
Gluten is not only in food products, but also in our skin care products, cosmetics, toothpaste and mouthwash and supplements such as vitamins and minerals (1,2).
Foods that contain gluten are often enriched with vitamins and minerals. And because of the properties of Gluten, our body is able to absorb nutrients from foods sufficiently. That being said, when you remove foods with gluten from the diet, this is also removing essential nutrients from the diet, which can lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies. If you choose to be on a Gluten Free Diet, it is important to make sure you get proper nutrients from other sources such as lentils, beans, etc. People on Gluten Free diets can still consume foods like potatoes, rice, quinoa, buckwheat… (1,2) There are a lot of cereals now (like Cheerios) that are Gluten Free. There is Gluten Free oatmeal, bread, pasta, cookies! Meaning, Gluten Free is not necessarily “healthier”. If you eat junk, your still eating junk even if it’s Gluten Free (3).
Now, Gluten Free and Low Carb…. Not the same thing. Gluten Free foods, if you compare the nutrition label often have more carbohydrates, and often times less fiber (which means more net carbs for those of you that are not familiar with how net carbs are calculated)(3). Can you be on a gluten free, low carbohydrate diet? Sure. But if you are consuming oatmeal, pasta and bread and think because it is gluten free that it has a lower amount of carbohydrates then you’re mistaken. Also, something to be aware of, a low carbohydrate diet, may also lack essential nutrients that our bodies get through major carbohydrate sources (3). Again, it’s doable if that’s the route you choose to go, but consider the nutritional makeup of your diet as a whole regardless what you choose.
While some people lose weight on gluten free diets, that is really not necessarily because they went “gluten free” as opposed to the fact they may just be eating less or eating healthier in comparison or relative to what they were eating before(3).
So bottom line- Gluten Free diets can be chosen for a lot of reasons but they are not all low carbohydrate, and they often lack essential nutrients that will need to be replaced by other sources in your diet, and should be carefully considered(3). If you feel like you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, it is best to consult with your physician first.