Gluten is one of the biggest buzzwords in dieting today, but going gluten-free is more than a fad. For some people, eating gluten can lead to inflammation, gut problems and chronic illness. Here’s a quick guide to help you understand what gluten is and how it affects your body.
Gluten is a protein. It gives bread dough its elasticity and is responsible for the chewy texture of baked goods. Gluten is present in every form of wheat, rye and barley. Any food produced with those products will also include gluten. That includes breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, beer and more. Not all grains contain gluten, however. Wild rice, corn, oats, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, sorghum and teff do not contain gluten. In addition to foods that are naturally gluten-free, many baked goods and foods can be specially made without using gluten or by using gluten substitutes.
Going gluten-free means more than eliminating problem grains from your diet. Gluten is also often found in foods that aren’t considered a “grain.” Salad dressing, canned soup, imitation crab, processed lunch meat, soy sauce and even some vitamins and minerals are made with gluten. Just because a food product is labeled “wheat-free” does not mean it is gluten-free.
Many people choose to go gluten-free, even if they don’t have a medical condition — such as celiac disease — that necessitates a gluten-free diet. Even if you’re otherwise perfectly healthy, gluten can still have a negative effect on your body. Here are a few of the conditions gluten can cause.
Inflammation in the body is the immune system’s natural response to injury. The proteins in wheat, including gluten, can be a gut irritant, causing an inflammatory response in the gut.
Gut inflammation contributes to increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut.” The gut wall allows digested food to pass into your bloodstream while keeping everything else (toxins, bacteria, viruses and molecules like dust) out. In leaky gut syndrome, the intestinal lining has become altered or damaged and the wall becomes permeable, allowing dangerous toxins and undigested foods to leak into the bloodstream. Some indicators of leaky gut include allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune disease, thyroid problems, malabsorption, inflammatory skin conditions and mood and behavioral issues.
The gut biome, also known as the human microbiome or gut flora, is the collection of good bacteria that live in your intestinal tract. These bacteria help regulate the immune system, aid in food digestion, send hunger/fullness signals to the brain, synthesize nutrients and help control intestinal permeability. Gluten can damage the gut biome, preventing these “friendly” bacteria from doing all they do to keep you healthy.
While gastrointestinal symptoms are common in individuals with celiac disease, gluten can contribute to gastrointestinal problems in anyone. These symptoms may include: diarrhea and/or constipation, pain, bloating, gas and sometimes vomiting.
The conditions listed above area just a few of the many ways gluten can affect your body. As the benefits of a gluten-free diet become more widely known, many individuals without celiac disease are going gluten-free. This lifestyle change helps them improve their overall health.
To go gluten-free, you don’t have to rely on specially-made food. Now, restaurants and food manufacturers are making gluten-free diets more accessible and easier to find. Avoid foods that commonly contain gluten; shop organic the grocery store and read the food labels to determine whether if the product’s ingredients include gluten.
For more tips on how to adapt to a gluten-free diet, click here.