What is Gluten and Why Should You Avoid it?
The gluten-free diet and a plethora of products containing no trace of this protein have swept the world by storm in the last decade. With gluten sensitivities and intolerances growing in numbers, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many people feel like they would be better by avoiding it in their diets, even without experiencing strong side effects.
Gluten has since been studied in numerous different ways, showing its inflammatory effects, potentially leading to health conditions in people who might not even have a gluten sensitivity in the first place. But, even though it’s been named enemy number one, many people don’t even know where to place it on the nutrient scale.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that can be found in wheat, rye, barley, cous cous, triticale, and some other grains. It’s naturally occurring in these carbohydrates, but it can also be extracted and used for different dietary purposes.
When added to foods where it naturally doesn’t occur, gluten acts as a glue or a binder that holds processed foods together and gives them shape, texture, and even flavor. That’s why people who have gluten sensitivities or intolerances can’t eat many products that naturally wouldn’t contain gluten, but it’s added to the ingredient list (like many soy sauces, dressings, and other pre-made soups and sauces).
In your body, gluten gets broken down by protease, an enzyme that breaks down all other proteins in the body. Unfortunately, since gluten doesn’t act like other proteins, protease can’t really do a good job and fully break it down into amino acids. This way, the undigested part of gluten gets into your small intestine and might trigger inflammation.
Who Can’t Digest Gluten?
Gluten sensitivities and intolerances weren’t detected basically until very recently and the way your small intestine reacts to it was usually blamed on other digestive or intestinal issues. Once the experts learned how gluten can affect the lining of your small intestine, a whole body of research started discovering the link between gluten and a variety of other health conditions.
We are now aware of diseases and conditions that are strongly connected to gluten and your body’s inability to digest it properly.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestine after consuming gluten. It seems to be caused by genetics, but triggered by overall stress and inflammation in your body. Today, it’s estimated that 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, with 30% of people living without a diagnosis, and 50% experiencing negative consequences even when following a gluten-free diet.
When people with celiac disease ingest gluten, their bodies create an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine and attacks the villi, making it harder for their body to absorb nutrients. It also creates microtears in your intestine walls which increases the risk of toxins and inflammation crossing the blood barrier and getting into your blood. This then becomes a serious problem that might lead to a variety of severe conditions like diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and even cancer.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Also known as gluten intolerance, this condition isn’t a full-blown autoimmune disease, but it’s characterized by digestive and intestinal symptoms similar to it. The damage gluten creates isn’t as severe or serious as in those with celiac disease, but the symptoms might be just as harsh.
From abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, gas, and overall fatigue, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition that shouldn’t be ignored, especially since studies show it still creates an inflammatory, immune reaction. This means your body recognizes gluten as a toxin and doesn’t properly digest any of the foods containing it.
In the world of many inflammatory diseases, adding another one on top does not do you any favors in the long run, and that’s why avoiding gluten seems like the best choice.
Although this specific type of allergy has to do with wheat and not gluten itself, it can be triggered by other grains containing gluten. The reason behind it is mostly due to the way foods get processed today and even small traces of wheat left on a machine that produces oat crackers might trigger an allergic reaction.
This is a severe and rare neurological autoimmune condition that can irreversibly damage parts of your brain when gluten is ingested. This can then cause life-long consequences in your gross motor skills, balance, walking, and overall coordination.
What About People Who Don’t Have Problems Digesting Gluten?
The question posed today is whether or not people who don’t seem to have a reaction to gluten should stay away from it and whether they will gain any benefit by doing so.
Even though experts say that if your body doesn’t create any reaction to gluten, there isn’t really a reason for you to stop eating foods containing it, the amount of inflammation and stress you can already be under due to another known or underlying condition might be exacerbated by gluten.
Certain inflammatory conditions and other autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, diabetes, and many cancers have the goal of reducing inflammation, and ingesting gluten might make things even worse. That’s why whenever you’re dealing with a diagnosis like this, the usual recommendation is to stay away from gluten and other pro-inflammatory agents.
Specifically with thyroid conditions, gluten resembles transglutaminase, an enzyme of your thyroid, and it might cause an immune reaction by your body by mistake. That’s why keeping a gluten-free diet is usually the first thing your doctor will encourage.
Additionally, gluten is added to mostly ultra-processed foods you should avoid in any case as they’re detrimental to your health, cause powerful inflammation, and pose a risk for developing many different diseases.
Still, experts warn how completely eliminating gluten from your diet if you have no known problems might cause issues down the road if you all of a sudden start eating it again. And furthermore, gluten-free products that exist on the market aren’t all healthy for you. Plenty of brands add other artificial ingredients to improve taste and texture, especially with added sweeteners and binding agents. Keep that in mind when going gluten-free.
If you’re interested in keeping a gluten-free diet, focus on whole foods and avoid processed products as much as you possibly can. You’ll quickly realize how most whole foods naturally don’t contain gluten. No fruit, vegetable, or healthy fat actually contains gluten, so instead of trying ti replace it with artificial gluten-free alternatives, focus on real, whole foods. In addition to being gluten-free, they will add a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and other health-boosting compounds to your body, nourishing and protecting you from the inside out.
Even though there are some known conditions that have a strong medical background why you should stay away from gluten in your diet, the mere fact it can trigger inflammation and is found in a plethora of ultra-processed foods means you will probably be better off if you keep it to the bare minimum.