Three Gluten Myths, Unraveled

If you pay any attention to the latest food claims and diet trends, then you’ll have heard about the dastardly gluten. So on this lovely Thursday, I will be fielding the questions and myths that most people have regarding it and, hopefully, shedding some light on the reality of the gluten dilemma.

First off, what is gluten? Gluten is a protein in wheat—composed of gliadin and glutenin—that allows wheat products to have a chewy texture and elastic properties. For example, the elasticity from gluten allows for bread products to rise and then keep a shape when baked. This is why gluten-free products that are made with rice flour, tapioca, or other flours typically are much more dense and fall apart more easily. Also, gluten is used in imitation meat products for vegetarians because it gives a firm texture to the food. Equally important, gluten can be found in a wide variety of products, from other grains to alcoholic beverages to cosmetics – click here for a full list.

People who have have celiac disease (coeliac in non-U.S. countries), deal with an autoimmune disorder that reacts to gluten, and wreaks havoc primarily in the small intestine. In addition, there are people who have a gluten sensitivity that can tolerate a certain amount of gluten products, but once they reach their threshold, will experience some adverse side effects (e.g., gastrointestinal [GI] distress, stopped up sinuses, acne).

So what do you, as an educated consumer, need to know about this component in your morning toast?

MYTH #1: In general, it is healthier for me to be on a gluten-free (GF) diet.

FACT: No. Just no. If you have not been tested by a doctor to receive an official celiac diagnosis then you do not need to avoid gluten. If you have not removed gluten from your diet and experienced significant improvements of adverse symptoms then you do not have a gluten sensitivity.

Furthermore, it is not necessarily “healthier” for you to embark on a GF diet. Wheat products often have more fiber than their GF counterparts, which is an important component of colon health, keeping those bowels moving, and soluble fiber can help reduce bad cholesterol levels (LDL, triglycerides). The general population basically sucks at getting enough fiber, and unnecessarily going on a GF diet would only exacerbate that.

Lastly, it is important to check the nutrition facts label on GF products because often the components will not be fortified with the vitamins and minerals that their standard counterparts have (folic acid, thiamin, iron, etc). Often the foods are also more processed with fat, sugar, and other additives to achieve some semblance of a normal product. So it’s just important to be aware of the pros and cons of buying items that are manufactured to be GF (e.g., pancake mix) in comparison to naturally GF foods (e.g., rice, quinoa).

MYTH #2: Going on a GF diet will absolutely help me lose weight.

FACT: When you break it down, weight loss centers around creating an unequal balance between calories in and calories out. Expend more calories than you take in and you will lose weight.

In terms of whether the GF diet will help you achieve weight loss, I would posit that in general it’s not the best pattern to choose. That is, unless you really don’t like all of the GF foods, then you probably will lose some weight. But otherwise, most GF foods actually have more calories and/or fat than their normal counterparts. Is coffee gluten free?

In regards to maintaining or achieving a healthy weight, the best tool you can have is the ability to interpret a nutrition label. With this skill, you can navigate any uncertain diet trends and find out what foods will best fit your health needs.

MYTH #3: The “only” effect that gluten has on individuals with celiac disease is some GI distress. 

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FACT: While the effects of gluten on an individual with celiac definitely include a profound effect on the gut (steatorrhea), there is increasing evidence of a multi-organ system effect. Just looking at the effect in the intestines—the villi that normally help absorb nutrients become shorter and flattened, which greatly compromises intestinal function and intake of crucial nutrients (B vitamins, iron, calcium, etc), thus causing the manifestation of deficiency symptoms. Additional health problems include:

“…iron deficiency that results in a low number of red blood cells (anemia), vitamin deficiencies, low bone mineral density (osteoporosis), itchy skin rashes (dermatitis herpetiformis), defects in the enamel of the teeth, chronic fatigue, joint pain, poor growth, delayed puberty, infertility, or repeated miscarriages. Neurological problems have also been associated with celiac disease; these include migraine headaches, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and recurrent seizures (epilepsy). ” (Source)

Basically, the effects vary for each person with celiac, but many of them have lasting negative repercussions. So NO, it’s not just that they’re going to be gassy for the next couple of hours.

If you are worried that you might have celiac, you can get genetically tested and then undergo a biopsy to get a definitive answer. Celiac disease is hereditary and so it’s a good nugget to be aware of if you know it runs in your family. Also, physical trauma, like a tough pregnancy, can trigger the onset of the disease in genetic carriers, so just because you don’t have it early in your life doesn’t mean you will never have it. But if it is not in your genes, then you will never have it.

In the end, darlings, it’s about what your body needs and what it can tolerate. You wouldn’t go on a renal diet if you didn’t have kidney disease, so it’s not recommended that you go on a GF diet if you don’t have a noted gluten sensitivity or a diagnosis of celiac disease. In the majority of people the human gut is remarkably resilient and it can tolerate all the gluten you throw at it just fine.

Photo credit to Viktor Hanacek

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