You may have noticed that over the past few years more restaurant menus denote some of their meals as “gluten-free”. You may also have noticed the increased gluten-free labeling in grocery stores as the market for gluten-free products and options has grown substantially over the past few years (1). Why does the gluten-free diet seem to be so popular these days? And should you be following this diet, too?
What is gluten?
Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat, barley, spelt, triticale, and rye (2). Gluten is what gives dough made with these grains the elastic, squeezable texture, and helps the dough rise up when baking. Gluten is commonly added to many processed foods, as gluten doesn’t just improve food’s texture but also improves its moisture retention and flavor (3) — a triple treat!
Loaves of bread and plates of pasta — two food items that commonly contain gluten — are not the only sources of gluten. Foods such as cereals, beer, cakes, cookies, soups, sauce mixes, and soy sauce can all contain gluten. Even non-food items, such as lip balms, over-the-counter medications, nutritional supplements, and play-dough can contain gluten (4).
Reading the ingredient list on products is super important for those who need to avoid gluten (5). Products that you may think are gluten-free may actually be made with other products that have gluten in them. Familiarizing yourself with the common names of gluten sources (6) can be helpful when doing your grocery shopping or ordering lunch at your local deli.
Common names of gluten sources
- German Wheat
- Graham Flour
- Malt (barley)
- Polish Wheat
- Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye)
- Wheat bran
- Wheat germ
What does gluten do to the body?
A vast majority of people can digest gluten without any issues or consequences. However, for individuals who have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, gluten needs to be avoided in order to prevent serious side effects, such as damage to the intestinal villi (little projections into the small intestine that increase the surface area for nutrient absorption).
If a person is gluten-sensitive, their body experiences an adverse reaction when gluten is ingested. Reactions can vary from fatigue, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, but generally does not damage the intestinal villi (7).
For those with celiac disease, the body interprets gluten as a toxin. When a toxin is present in the body, the body’s response is to protect itself. In doing so, it will attack the gluten proteins that have invaded its space. Unfortunately, it also packs a punch to tissue transglutaminase, an enzyme in the cells of the digestive tract. This assault damages the intestinal villi, causing malabsorption, and increasing the risk of osteoporosis, severe digestive issues, anemia, and other ailments.
Healthy ways to be gluten-free
Fortunately, should you need to follow a gluten-free diet, there are many healthy options available to you. And it doesn’t mean you have to eat the same boring foods day in and day out.
Eating unprocessed, single-ingredient foods is the easiest way to avoid gluten. There are a ton of substitutions you can use. Set your sights on foods such as those listed below, and you will soon find many ways to embrace a gluten-free diet!
- Fresh fruits
- Meats and fish (not battered or processed)
- Dairy — plain milk, plain yogurt, and cheese (be wary of flavored dairy items as they may have added ingredients that contain gluten)
- Nuts and seeds — a handful of almonds make for a great snack and packs in some protein too
- Oils, such as avocado and olive are gluten-free and are healthy fats to have in your diet
- Herbs and spices — use to your heart’s content to flavor up your kitchen creations!
Benefits of a gluten-free diet
Taking gluten out of your diet can be trying and can mean a lot of work — however, that hard work can pay off in the long run! One of the biggest benefits of removing gluten from your life is that the damage caused by ingesting gluten may be reversed (8). By removing the aggravator, your body can start to rest and repair itself from the inside out. You may soon notice that a gluten-free lifestyle can help reduce chronic inflammation, give a welcome boost to your energy levels, and may even help you lose some weight (9), all in addition to easing up digestive symptoms as well.
Removing gluten is not recommended without seeing your healthcare practitioner. After reading the facts and educating yourself, consulting with your health provider is the safest and best was to ensure your success with a gluten-free diet and/or other diets. Remember everyone is different and can react differently in a change in lifestyle and diet. If you suspect you might have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, consult with your healthcare practitioner.