These days, it’s hard to avoid the word gluten. You have probably seen “gluten-free” at the grocery store, on the menu at a restaurant, and alongside weight-loss promises. So, what’s the deal with gluten, what even is gluten, and should you go “gluten-free?”
What is Gluten?
While gluten has been made to be the bad guy time and time again, many people don’t fully understand gluten. Gluten is an insoluble protein composite, made up of two proteins: Gliadin and Glutenin. It’s been around since as long ago as 10,000 BCE, and is found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley (1).
Gluten is what gives the elastic consistency to dough, and the chewiness of some foods. Gluten gives bread that “bounce”, if you will. Foods associated with gluten include bread and pasta, which can cause issues for some people. This association causes misplaced blame and misconceptions around gluten. Without the proper tests, it’s hard to pinpoint what is causing negative symptoms from food.
How Gluten Affects the Body
When you’re eating, the first stop for your food is the stomach. When you’re eating gluten, the gluten-filled food will be partially digested and will turn into a protein called gliadin. It then goes to the small intestine, where it’s met with amino acids and changes again, to deamidated gliadin.
Unfortunately, this digestive process is difficult for some people and can cause pain or discomfort. People that struggle with the digestion and absorption of gluten have a form of Gluten Insensitivity. While some may have a serious form of insensitivity called Celiac Disease, there are other reasons gluten may cause this reaction including other allergies, or reaction to sugars which are also present in these foods.
While gluten is perhaps an overused buzzword lately, some people do have a true immune response to gluten. These people have Celiac Disease. Their body reacts to gluten as if it were an enemy, and will attack it, causing inflammation and long-term issues. The body reacts as if you were infected with a disease causing bacteria or virus, which results in the negative physiological effects often seen. Celiac Disease occurs in 1 in every 100 to 200 people, and can be diagnosed with a biopsy. Thankfully, those with Celiac Disease can find relief from these nasty reactions by adhering to a gluten-free diet.
Wheat Allergy and Non- Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Many people report digestive or other problems from consuming gluten, but are negative for Celiac Disease. These people may have a wheat allergy or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (2). While not as deadly as Celiac Disease, many of these reactions can be uncomfortable enough to prompt people to limit gluten or even cut it out entirely.
A wheat allergy is when the body has an immune response to wheat. This is different from a gluten allergy and can even occur alongside a gluten allergy. Symptoms can be mild discomfort to more severe reactions like anaphylaxis (3).
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
The difference between this and Celiac Disease is the lack of antibodies and damage those with Celiac Disease have (4). Notably, this type of gluten sensitivity shows more non-GI related symptoms like brain fog and joint pain.
When it’s Not Gluten
Some people aren’t allergic to gluten, they’re sensitive to the sugars found in wheat and other foods. Studies show sugar like fructans causing the same or similar reactions to that of gluten for people with celiac disease (5,6).
Gluten sensitivity is widely controversial. Determining the cause of your symptoms will require a deeper look at symptoms and reactions, tests, and diet changes. While finding the source can take time, it’s important to determine the exact cause, so you’re not taking out crucial aspects of your diet for the wrong reason. Work with a doctor to take a deeper look at your diet, symptoms, and what might be causing your discomfort.
If you do have Celiac Disease or another significant gluten insensitivity, you don’t want to cut out all grains from your diet. You can get the needed nutrients from gluten-free grains such as quinoa, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, corn, rice, and others. It is always important to eat a well balanced diet within your means and you can read more about Carbohydrates and their role here.