Is Gluten Bad for You?

What is Gluten?

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Gluten 101: The Basics
Before tackling the gluten-free diet, let’s get to know our culprit. Gluten is a specific type of protein, but one you won’t find in meat or eggs. Instead gluten is found found in several types of grains, including wheat, spelt, rye, and barley. Gluten is a protein composite that consists of two proteins: (1) gliadin and (2) glutenin. It is the gliadin part that people react negatively to.

When flour is mixed with water, gluten forms a sticky cross-linked network of proteins, giving elastic properties to dough and allowing bread to rise when baked. Actually, the name gluten is derived from these glue-like properties.

Why are People Eating Gluten Free?

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Gluten-free eating has a basis in science, and it does help a genuine health problem. To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten is truly evil. A gluten-free diet is used to treat celiac disease. Gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with celiac disease.

When individuals with celiac disease eat foods that contain gluten, their bodies mount an immune response that results in damaging the small intestine. This immune reaction causes both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies. If untreated, these responses can then lead to intestinal cancers as well as complications such as infertility and osteoporosis. Eating a gluten-free diet helps people with celiac disease control their signs and symptoms and prevent complications. So, for people with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential.

What About Gluten Sensitivity?

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Over the years, another problem has emerged. A medical condition that healthcare professionals refer to as nonceliac gluten sensitivity. People with gluten sensitivity have many of the same symptoms as those with celiac disease but, unlike celiac, gluten sensitivity doesn’t damage the intestine. When people with gluten sensitivity eat foods containing gluten, it triggers unpleasant symptoms: stomach pains, bloat, heartburn, joint pains, headache, skin rashes, fatigue, insomnia and brain fog, to name some of the most common. Although many of these symptoms are similar to those experienced by celiac sufferers, if you turn out to be gluten-sensitive, it probably won’t require giving up gluten entirely.

In treating patients in my practice, I have found that eliminating gluten for a few weeks and gradually reintroducing it is the best way to assess your body’s response to gluten and determine your own gluten threshold. By gradually introducing gluten-containing grains and other foods, you’ll get an understanding of which of these foods, or how much of them, your body can process without triggering symptoms.

What is a Gluten-Free Diet?

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Going gluten-free means avoiding these grains. A gluten-free diet is a diet that excludes the protein gluten. Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Many healthy and delicious foods are naturally gluten-free. Here are some examples of vegan-friendly GF foods:

Beans, seeds, nuts in their natural, unprocessed form
Fruits and vegetables
Amaranth
Arrowroot
Buckwheat
Corn and cornmeal
Flax
Gluten-free flours (rice, soy, corn, potato, bean)
Hominy (corn)
Millet
Quinoa
Rice
Sorghum
Soy
Tapioca
Teff

It’s important to make sure that these foods are not processed or mixed with gluten-containing grains, additives or preservatives.

What are examples of gluten-containing foods that appear on food labels?

These include barley, bulgur, cereal binding, couscous, durum, farro, emmer, graham flour, kamut, malt, malt extract, malt flavoring, malt syrup, rye, semolina, spelt, triticale, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, wheat starch, and oats that are not labeled “Gluten Free” because they have been contaminated by gluten in the field or in the processing plant. A few specific examples of gluten-containing foods include: Cheerios (contains wheat starch) and Frosted Flakes (uses malt flavoring).

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So, is gluten bad for you?
Yes, but only if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Otherwise, the answer is NO.

KEY POINTS:
Remember to make smart choices if you do decide to consume a gluten-free diet. The basis for a gluten-free diet, as with any diet, should be natural (unprocessed foods).

Any time you eliminate whole categories of food you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. So do your research before making any major dietary changes.

Get more information about gluten-free diets.

Learn more at mayoclinic.org

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