Question: What is “gluten,” and why are some people avoiding it?
Bottom Line: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For most people, gluten is not harmful or unhealthy in any way. However, approximately 1% of Americans have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder characterized by gluten-sensitivity. People with celiac disease must avoid gluten in order to avoid damaging their intestinal tract, which can lead to malabsorption of nutrients and subsequent serious health problems.
· If you are among the 99% of people who are not sensitive to gluten, gluten-free products are in no way healthier alternatives to products containing gluten. On the contrary, gluten-free baked goods are often higher in fat and calories due to the additional ingredients required to provide a texture and quality similar to gluten-containing products. For those who are not gluten-sensitive, avoiding gluten will not improve personal health or nutrition status.
· If you are sensitive to gluten, the only current treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet; this means avoiding any foods containing wheat, barley, or rye, as well as any products made from or contaminated by these ingredients. This can be very tricky at first, but becomes easier with time, practice, and help from support services and certified health professionals such as your doctor or dietitian.
· In recent years, researchers have discovered that gluten sensitivity is more common than previously thought; for this reason, more food companies are making products that are gluten-free. This is great for people who have celiac disease, but has also led to some confusion about gluten among consumers. For this reason, some people who are not gluten-sensitive are avoiding gluten anyway. This is not only unnecessary, inconvenient, and possibly expensive, but also unfortunate because they are missing out on many perfectly nutritious foods for no reason.
· In the case of gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten prior to meeting with your doctor can compromise the accuracy of diagnosis. I urge you to always talk to your doctor before restricting your diet, as self-diagnosis of gluten-sensitivity (or any food intolerance or allergy for that matter) can lead to unnecessary diet limitations.
· Unfortunately, many people living with celiac disease are unaware they are sensitive to gluten. To learn more about symptoms and diagnosis, I recommend checking out the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center factsheets on their website here.
Questions about celiac disease or a gluten-free diet? Leave them in the comments section!
Thanks for reading,