Health gurus and influencers have credited gluten with causing everything from autism to diabetes to schizophrenia. Is the hype true? Should we really be avoiding it?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale, spelt, kamut, and products made from these grains. It is what gives bread and pasta their characteristic chew and, for the average person, it is a nutritious component of their overall intake.
Is gluten harmful?
Current research indicates that gluten is only harmful to people who have celiac disease or wheat allergy. It has not been shown that eating gluten will cause any other disease or condition.
So what is celiac disease?
In celiac disease, the body reacts to gluten as it travels through the digestive tract resulting in damage to the intestines, poor nutrient absorption, and sometimes also digestive upset or fatigue. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is complete avoidance of all gluten. This means that people with a celiac diagnosis cannot eat regular breads, pastas, crackers, muffins, waffles, doughnuts, cookies, pizza, beer, etc. Even small crumbs can cause damage to their intestine, so they need to avoid their food touching anything containing gluten such as crumbs in a peanut butter jar or food cooked in a restaurant deep-fryer that also fried something containing gluten.
How is wheat allergy different from celiac disease?
Wheat allergy is comparable to any other food allergy such as a peanut allergy. It is more common in children and it is possible to be outgrown. Common symptoms include skin rash, diarrhea, vomiting, or difficulty breathing. Depending on the severity of the allergy, it may require antihistamines, a wheat-free diet, and/or an EpiPen to treat anaphylaxis.
What about the people who feel better avoiding gluten?
Feeling better when avoiding gluten could happen for a couple reasons. First, people often eat too much starchy food so when they cut out gluten, they need to find replacements and often end up eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and meat which may mean they are eating healthier than they did before – hence, feeling better.
Alternatively, they may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). About 1 in 10 people suffer from IBS, which is a digestive disorder causing abdominal pain, with or without diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas. Some people with IBS experience symptoms about 4-8 hours after eating a carbohydrate called fructan. Gut bacteria ferment fructans, producing gas, and for people with IBS, this can result in bloating and abdominal pain. Wheat, rye and barley are high in fructans so they may cause discomfort for people with IBS-related fructan intolerance. It is important to note that it is still safe to eat fructans with IBS (gas may be painful but it’s not dangerous) and these people are also able to eat pure gluten such as seitan or other gluten-containing vegetarian proteins without any issue as their trouble is with the fructan in wheat, not the gluten.
How do I know if I have a food sensitivity?
May is celiac disease awareness month and April was IBS awareness month. If you or someone close to you has concerns about digestion, allergies, or food sensitivities, speak with a doctor who can rule out other diagnoses and request a referral to a dietitian who specializes in the area to help sort out symptoms and triggers. Remember, it is not helpful to avoid any food unnecessarily, so work with an expert to pinpoint what may be causing symptoms and only avoid what you absolutely have to!
by Jenny Pasanen, Registered Dietitian