What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a sticky, gluey protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rice, and rye. This gooey protein is commonly used in baked goods. Gluten holds on to the carbon dioxide made from yeast and expands. It’s what makes dough stretchy, holds cookies together, makes cake rise, and why bagels are doughy. You can also find gluten in some unlikely places, like pasta, beer, soy sauce, certain medications, toothpaste, and even lipstick.
Difference between sensitivity/intolerance
If you have gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, eating gluten causes an immune reaction in your small intestines that attacks the inner surface of the intestine. Inflammation and atrophy of villi – small projections on your intestinal wall – can cause you to have trouble absorbing calories, vitamins and minerals. Gluten intolerance can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea and anemia but may also contribute to conditions such as infertility, osteoporosis and neurological conditions.
Gluten sensitivity is similar to gluten intolerance in that it means the body has trouble digesting gluten. It can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as upset stomach and may lead to fatigue, brain fog, headaches and tingling in the extremities. However, a major distinguishing factor is that gluten sensitivity isn’t as severe as gluten intolerance, and it doesn’t cause damage or increased permeability in the intestines. People with gluten intolerance and people with gluten sensitivity experience different immune responses to gluten.
Who Is Affected by Gluten?
Gluten intolerance was once very rare. But it’s become much more common in modern times. Something has changed in our environment to make gluten intolerance more prevalent. It’s directly related to what we put in our bodies. Gluten isn’t part of our native diet. So it’s natural that our bodies reject it.
Here’s the thing…
Your “gut brain” thinks gluten is a foreign substance. It doesn’t know that it’s meant to be a source of nutrition. So, when gluten reaches your gut, it panics. Your gut reacts by sending antibodies to attack the unknown substance. This causes your immune system to become hyper alert with auto-immune components. And it can cause your body to attack its own tissue.
When your immune system attacks, it damages the villi so they can’t absorb what your body needs to live. This can cause your body to destroy its own tissues and shut down. Leaky gut syndrome, malabsorption, and malnutrition are some common outcomes.
The longer gluten intolerance is left untreated, the worse the outcome can be. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most misdiagnosed conditions out there. The symptoms are very similar to other digestive problems and vary from patient to patient.
Here is a video that helps explains this in a simple way: http://youtu.be/n4EffS3fWv4
If left untreated, gluten intolerance can cause:
- Reduced blood flow to the brain
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Low birth weight
- Thyroid disease
Common Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight Gain or Loss
- Alternating Constipation and Diarrhea
Getting Back to Basics
Although gluten-free diets are prescribed to people who are gluten intolerant, everyone can benefit from eating less grains and processed food. When you cut out grains and processed foods, you’re getting back to your native way of eating. This will boost your energy, improve focus, improve digestion, and aid with the absorption of nutrients.
Remember, gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, bran, wheat germ, buckwheat, millet, and other grains. If you see ANY reference to these types of grains on a food label, steer clear.
Here’s a list of some additives and ingredients you’ll want to stay away from if you’re eating gluten-free:
- Distilled grain vinegar
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Instant dry yeast or yeast extract
- Food starch
- Grain alcohol
Many food manufacturers now put “gluten-free” on their packaging.
Coconut flour and almond flour are excellent choices. If you can’t find these, rice flour makes a good gluten-free alternative.
How Gluten Affects You
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate the use of the claim “gluten-free” on consumer products, proposed legislation would mandate that products labeled “gluten-free” must be tested to ensure that they contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, a threshold under which current testing methods are unable to detect the presence of gluten (and a level under which no adverse reactions appear to be triggered in those with Celiac disease). Currently, numerous grain-free products that are inherently gluten-free—from hummus to dried fruit—are carrying a gluten-free claim, presumably as a marketing tactic to make them appear healthier than competitive items. According to the FDA’s proposed guidelines, this practice would be outlawed.
While there are segments of people who must avoid eating gluten due to adverse reactions, gluten is not an inherent “toxin” as many would have us believe. People with an immune-mediated wheat allergy and those with Celiac disease must follow a strict gluten-free diet, as gluten triggers harmful reactions. Others who have tested negative for wheat allergy or Celiac disease but still find that eating wheat causes unpleasant side effects may have a non-immune gluten intolerance or a wheat/gluten sensitivity. Those who experience gas and bloating in particular after eating wheat may actually be reacting to a form of carbohydrate in the wheat called fructans, rather than the gluten protein itself. For these latter groups, avoiding wheat and gluten may alleviate uncomfortable side effects; however, eating wheat/gluten does not cause damage to their cells nor trigger dangerous allergic reactions. For everyone else, gluten is just one of many food proteins encountered in the course of a mixed diet, neither detrimental nor essential to good health.
In other words, if you tolerate gluten and enjoy it, there’s no compelling reason to avoid it. If you don’t tolerate it or just prefer not to eat it, there’s no compelling reason for you to keep it in your diet. Many people find that cutting out gluten helps them avoid the temptation of the numerous empty-calorie, high-glycemic, processed snack foods that they want to eliminate. Others, however, find that cutting out gluten only to replace it with gluten-free versions of these same empty-calorie, high-glycemic, processed snack foods is of no benefit for weight loss, energy levels, or improved health. A “gluten-free” claim is by no means an indication that a food is more natural, healthful, or lower in calories.
Testing for Gluten
If you suspect if you may have an intolerance to gluten, it is important to have testing done. It involves a simple blood test. These tests vary in their reliability and sensitivity to detecting gluten allergies and will often be accompanied by a full blood count to check for other possible symptoms, such as anemia, electrolytes, renal function and liver enzymes.
- tTG (tissue TransGlutaminase) – IgA and IgG
- DGP-IgG (Diamidated Gliadin Peptide IgA and IgG)
- EMA (Endomesial Antibodies) – IgA
Celiac disease is defined as the gut damage caused by gluten. When this happens, there is an over-reaction of the immune system in the gut. A harmful immune reaction is generated in the gut tissue. This tissue injury involves inflammatory cells and the production of antibodies. These “tissue damage” tests are very accurate and can detect this damage.
Studies demonstrate that where levels of these antibodies are elevated, more than 95% of patients will be found to have celiac disease. In other words, if you have a a high tTG, DGP or EMA test, then it is almost certain that you have a diagnosis of celiac disease (the next question is whether you need an endoscopy).
Foods to Avoid
- Wheat, wheat berries, wheat bran, wheat germ, wheatgrass, or any form of the word wheat (other than buckwheat, which is an unrelated plant)
- Barley, barley malt, barley flour, or any form of the word barley.
- Rye, rye flour, pumpernickel flour, or any form of the word rye.
- Oats, oatmeal, oat flour, oat groats, or any form of the word oats, if your doctor has advised you to avoid oats. If your doctor permits oats on your gluten-free diet, look for gluten-free oats.
- Flour, including instant, bread, cake, enriched, graham, and all-purpose flours. **Flours made from safe grains (such as corn flour, millet flour, and rice flour) are safe.
- Bulgar or Bulghar
- Cracker meal
- Tempura crumbs
- Malt, unless specified as being made from a non-gluten source (such as corn).
Avoid foods containing the following unless the label indicates they are from a non-gluten source:
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Modified food starch
- Vegetable starch or vegetable protein
- Gelatinized starch or pregelatinized starch
- Natural flavorings
- Soy sauce (look for wheat-free tamari as an alternative)
Be especially alert for the presence of wheat and gluten in the following:
- Breads, pastries, cakes, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, pies, pretzels, and all other baked goods. The majority are made from wheat flour; look for alternatives by allergy-safe manufacturers.
- Breakfast cereals, both hot and cold.
- Pasta, including gnocchi, spaetzle, chow mein, lo mein, and filled pastas. Rice noodles, pure buckwheat soba noodles, and pastas from allergy-friendly manufacturers are good alternatives for home cooking.
- Snack foods, especially if seasoned or highly processed.
- Soups, gravies, and thickened sauces.
- Breaded meats or vegetables, such as fried chicken or okra.
- Dumplings, meatballs, lunch meats, meat loaves, and similar foods (often held together with breadcrumbs or flour).
- Beer (Gluten-free beers are available.)
- Salad dressings, Worcestershire sauce, and other condiments.