Gluten has become a buzzword in the past several years as increasing numbers of people are expressing their displeasure with it. You may have found yourself in the midst of arguments that threw around such words as gluten sensitivity, whole grains, grain-free and celiac disease with individuals on both sides of the argument feeling positive that they were right. All of this may have led you to reconsider your approach to eating grains and to research whether or not you should give up gluten as part of a healthy diet.
Before you make such a far-reaching decision for yourself, be sure to research exactly what gluten is, how it may be good for you and when it could be right to remove it from your diet.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is found in all types of wheat, rye and barley. Not only is it found in anything that lists wheat as an ingredient, but also it is found in varying quantities in foods containing durum, semolina, spelt, farro, farina, kamut, einkorn and emmer.
Your first thought may be that gluten is found mainly in breads. However, the number of food items containing gluten may just surprise you. It is routinely found in numerous processed foods, including soups, sauces, gravies and even salad dressings. Of course, you also have to look out for it in pastries, cakes, muffins, pasta and cereals. All of these products routinely contain wheat.
However, gluten is also found in some more surprising places when you consider that both rye and barley contain this protein. Malt is made from barley. Therefore, malt syrup, malt extract, malted milk and milkshakes can all contain this ingredient. Gluten also hides in food coloring, brewer’s yeast, and beer.
Gluten is everywhere these days, and it has been a normal part of many people’s diets for millennia. However, as increasing numbers of people are going gluten-free these days, there are now numerous products that claim to be gluten-free. Almost any grocery store will carry dozens of gluten-free replacement products for your favorite breads, cookies, cereals, flours and more.
Why Is Everyone Going Gluten-Free?
Now that you know where gluten is hiding, you may be wondering why everyone is going gluten-free. If it has been consumed throughout numerous cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years, why is it now suddenly coming under such incredible censure?
Today, people are more interested than ever before in returning to healthier diets. Obesity is at an all-time high in the Western world, and numerous people suffer from chronic diseases.
In addition, even those who are not elderly and who do not have diagnosed chronic diseases are often complaining of just not feeling well. Some blame the extremely processed diets of the past several decades with many of their problems. While the shift away from whole foods has certainly been to blame, foods containing gluten are sadly falling into this same unhealthy category for many people.
People who want to become healthier, lose weight, feel more energetic and lose their aches and pains often turn to gluten-free diets to accomplish all of these goals. Proponents of the “just because” gluten-free diet claim that they feel less anxious, have better moods, feel fewer aches and pains in their joints and have more energy each day without gluten.
In addition, proponents of this type of diet hold to the idea that the processed grains that we are eating today are nothing like the healthy whole grains that our ancestors ate. They state that our engineered wheats are causing huge issues in the body, including high levels of inflammation.
Of course, much of the reason for the huge shift to gluten-free diets comes from peer pressure. Many people are watching their friends, coworkers and family members try out this diet, and they want to be on the healthy bandwagon, too.
Others read about celebrities, actors, trainers and other individuals in the public eye who swear by this diet, and they want to do the same. However, without the proper information or medical authorization, a gluten-free diet could be more harmful than it is helpful.
How Is Celiac Disease Different from a Gluten Sensitivity?
There are certainly some people who should stay away from gluten as they follow their doctor’s advice. The four categories of people who may receive this recommendation or treatment from their doctors include the following:
- Those with celiac disease
- Those with gluten sensitivities
- Those sensitive to high FODMAP diets
- Those with wheat allergies
The number of people who fall into these categories is actually quite small, however. Only 0.4 percent of people have wheat allergies, and most who do have this type of allergy outgrow it by adulthood.
One percent of people have been diagnosed with celiac disease, making this far more common than a wheat allergy, but still quite rare. Approximately 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease in which one’s autoimmune system attacks the intestinal walls. For people with this diagnosis, even the tiniest hint of gluten can cause excruciating pain.
A gluten sensitivity is the most common problem here, affecting approximately 6 percent of people. With a gluten sensitivity, the body creates inflammatory reactions to this protein. However, the problem is not measurable or as easily diagnosed as celiac disease is nor does it cause such terrible discomfort.
What Are the Benefits of Eating Gluten?
Keep in mind that gluten is not just an evil substance as many would have you believe. Instead, it has specific benefits for the human body that have been gained by people of numerous cultures for centuries. When you eat gluten-rich foods, you are reaping the benefits of the fiber from the grains. Fiber is an important component of a healthy diet, helping you feel full, keeping your bowels regular, improving your heart health, helping you maintain a healthy weight and even controlling your blood sugar.
In addition, many gluten-rich foods have been fortified with important vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron and folate, to ensure that you are receiving all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. In particular, fortified cereals and breads are rich sources of B vitamins, which help to give you energy and which are incredibly important for pregnant women. While you can find numerous gluten-free breads and cereals at nearly any grocery store as well as online these days, most are not fortified as the traditional varieties are.
As the gluten-free diet has become increasingly popular in recent years, many studies have looked at how gluten may benefit or destroy health, and some interesting findings have been discovered.
For example, one study showed that individuals following a gluten-free diet were more likely to have increased levels of heavy metals in their bloodstreams when compared to their peers. Another study showed that eating gluten could decrease the chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
A study from Harvard proved that gluten could lower the incidence of heart disease while an announcement from the World Health Organization showed that whole grains, including those containing gluten, reduced one’s risk of colorectal cancer.
Gluten may also be able to boost one’s immunity as shown by one study that looked at how gluten boosted the body’s ability to fight off viruses and battle against cancer cells. Obviously, gluten has incredible benefits to humans that should not be unthinkingly ignored.
Are There Problems with Going Gluten-Free If You Do Not Have a Gluten Intolerance?
Unless your doctor has diagnosed you with an allergy, immune reaction or disease that specifically limits your ability to consume gluten, you should consider keeping at least some gluten in your diet because of the incredible benefits from this protein.
You will be able to reap amazing health benefits that can help to prevent numerous chronic diseases.
Additionally, you can gain the benefits from low-fat whole grains while staying away from gluten-free substitutes that often gain their flavor and texture from high levels of fat, sugar and salt.
Despite the research showing how beneficial gluten is for so many people who have not specifically been diagnosed with an allergy, sensitivity or celiac disease, the number of people avoiding gluten has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. In fact, between 2009 and 2014, the number of people choosing a gluten-free diet tripled.
Think carefully before choosing this diet for yourself. If you feel that eating gluten gives you pain or is causing fatigue or another physical or mental issue, check with your doctor who will be able to run the appropriate tests to determine whether or not you have a true gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
However, most medical doctors will not recommend a gluten-free diet without a high sensitivity to this protein. By keeping gluten in your diet, you will not only reap the benefits of the fiber and nutrients in the food but also save money by choosing gluten-rich foods that are far cheaper than their gluten-free substitutes are.