What is the deal with gluten, and should you be worried about eating it? In this post, I share what gluten is, how to tell if it’s a problem for you, and how to avoid it IF you need to.
- Gluten is a protein found in certain types of grains (i.e., wheat, barley, and rye)
- It is also used as a food additive in things like condiments, sauces, and seasoning packets.
- Gluten is a serious health issue for 1% of the population who have Celiac Disease
- Some people have Gluten Sensitivity, which causes them to feel ill after consuming foods with gluten
- Easy ways to limit or avoid gluten include eating home-cooked meals and eating a low carb or keto diet.
Gluten: What Is It? Should You Avoid It? [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- What gluten is and which foods contain it.
- What it does to our bodies.
- Whether or not you should avoid it.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in certain types of grains, mainly wheat, barley, and rye. It has a stickiness to it, which is likely how it got its name (the word ‘gluten’ is derived from the Latin word for glue).
This sticky nature is what helps bread dough rise and hold together and gives cookies their soft, chewy consistency. Without gluten, bread is dense, and cookies crumble.
The stickiness also makes gluten a useful food additive because it stabilizes and thickens things. It is often found in sauces, soups, marinades, and gravies.
Is Gluten Bad?
Gluten has a bad reputation, but it is not evil. In a healthy individual, it is a protein source. But, some people have an intolerance to it.
Gluten is a serious problem for people who have Celiac Disease. This autoimmune disorder is estimated to affect about 1% of the population (1).
It is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. In this case, it attacks the lining of the small intestine.
Because your small intestine is the area where most nutrients are absorbed, Celiac Disease can result in nutrient deficiencies. The disorder is triggered by gluten, and your doctor can diagnose this condition using a blood test or a biopsy of your small intestine.
Gluten Sensitivity is more common, but there is no clinical test for the condition, so the estimate of how prevalent it is, is based on the self-reporting of symptoms.
Someone with a gluten sensitivity experiences symptoms when they eat gluten, but they test negative for Celiac Disease.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance and Sensitivity
A person with Celiac Disease experiences a host of symptoms including fatigue, weight loss, bloating, gas, abdominal or joint pain, nausea, skin rashes, headaches, and diarrhea or constipation.
Symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity are similar to those experienced by someone with the disease (3).
However, a person with sensitivity does not have the damage to the small intestine that is seen in a person with the autoimmune disorder.
Foods That Are High in Gluten
Gluten is a difficult ingredient to avoid because grains are the basis of many popular foods. Gluten is also used as a food additive in products that you wouldn’t suspect.
Foods you need to be aware of when following a gluten-free diet include bread-like products including bread, dough, pancakes, muffins, cereals, breading on fish or meat, pasta, baked goods, crackers, and pretzels.
Less obvious foods that contain gluten include certain commercial brands of chicken/beef broth, hot dogs and other processed meats, veggie burgers, and certain packaged snacks, like roasted nuts and potato chips.
Nuts and potatoes in their pure form are gluten-free but may get contaminated with gluten if they are processed in the same facility as gluten-containing foods.
Gluten is also found in condiments and sauces like soy sauce, some salad dressings, and pre-packaged seasoning and spice mixes.
Gluten is also found in beer and malt beverages, which includes wine coolers and other flavored alcoholic drinks.
Food manufacturers and food bloggers have come out with products and recipes to make gluten-free versions of many of the foods that I listed. While it is hard to match the chewy, moist texture of foods that contain gluten, these products offer safe alternatives.
If the food is packaged, the label will often identify it as being gluten-free. If you don’t see a gluten-free label, you need to be a bit of a detective. This requires looking at the ingredient list for items that may contain gluten.
Look for obvious words like wheat, barley, and rye, but also look for less obvious ingredients like dextrin, maltodextrin, malt vinegar, natural or artificial flavoring, natural coloring, modified food starch, and hydrolyzed protein.
There are several varieties of wheat and wheat-based foods. To totally avoid gluten, you’ll want to avoid whole wheat, wheat berries, wheat flour, wheat starch, wheat bran, wheat germ, graham, bulgur, farro, farina, couscous, durum, kamut, bromated flour, seitan, semolina, spelt, and triticale.
Is Gluten Sensitivity on the Rise?
Celiac Disease affects about 1% of the population, and up to 13% of people may be affected by gluten sensitivity. Even if we add those segments of the population together, we see that the majority of people in the world are able to tolerate gluten. So, why is gluten on the minds of so many, and is the problem getting worse?
There are many reasons why we hear so much about gluten these days. Since we have access to health information from so many outlets, some of the interest can be attributed to awareness. This heightened awareness may lead to a more common diagnosis of the condition.
There are likely some physical factors that are causing a rise in sensitivity to gluten. Grains are grown differently than they once were. Over the years, they have been genetically modified to make them hardier. That is not always a bad thing, but in this case, it could alter the gluten content of the grains in ways that were not intended.
As a society, we consume more grains than ever before. Gluten is found in foods like bread, pizza dough, cookies, sauces and condiments. Perhaps the increase in gluten consumption is overwhelming our digestive systems. This may be where a condition called Leaky Gut comes into play.
Gluten and Leaky Gut
If you’ve heard of leaky gut, you’ve likely heard it in connection with gluten. Leaky gut is a simple term that literally means that the gut allows potentially harmful substances to leak through it and enter the bloodstream. It has a more sophisticated name, which is intestinal permeability.
In a healthy gut lining, there are tight junctions between the cells that prevent harmful substances from leaving the intestines. If these tight junctions get damaged, they leak bacteria and toxins into the blood, causing widespread inflammation.
Gluten activates a protein called zonulin that regulates the tight junctions of the intestinal wall. Zonulin can increase the permeability or leaking of these tight junctions, but this may only be a problem for individuals with Celiac Disease or other intestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (4).
In a healthy person, it is questionable how much of an effect gluten has on leaky gut. Yet, it opens the question of whether or not you should avoid gluten.
Should You Avoid Gluten?
Simply put, some people can tolerate gluten, and some cannot. If you have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, gluten must be avoided.
If you experience discomfort after eating grain-based foods or consuming other foods with gluten, then you are likely sensitive to gluten and you’ll feel best on a gluten-free diet.
Others can consume gluten, but foods that are high in gluten are not a dieter’s friend. It is possible that overconsumption could set you up for problems down the road. If health and weight control are factors that you want to improve, gluten-containing foods should be limited.
How to Avoid Gluten
Let’s discuss strategies to avoid or limit gluten.
Because gluten is in so many foods, eating at restaurants is a challenge for those who are trying to go gluten-free. If you eat out, you’ll do best if you avoid sauces and foods that are breaded and fried.
Gluten is a protein, but since it is a protein found in grains, it is mostly found in high carb foods.
The best way to avoid gluten is to eat a low-carb diet. While the upper range of a low carb diet is often defined as 125 grams per day, those on a low-carb diet for weight loss need to keep their carb intake well below 100 grams per day to see results.
If you follow a keto diet, which is a very low carb diet, your upper limit of carbs is 50 grams. If we consider that 2 slices of sandwich bread contain more than 30 grams of carbs, it’s easy to see how a low-carb diet would naturally cut out bread and other high-gluten foods.
A low-carb diet and a gluten-free diet have many parallels, but a gluten-free diet is not necessarily low carb.
High carb foods that are gluten-free include all fruits, starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, and beans.
There are also several gluten-free grains including quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, millet, amaranth, and arrowroot as well as oats, which tends to be contaminated with gluten when processed, so if you choose oats, you need to read the label to ensure that they are gluten-free.
If you choose to go low-carb, download my list of 100 low-carb foods, which is a great step toward a gluten-free life. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!
(1) Ludvigsson, Jonas F., et al. “Screening for celiac disease in the general population and in high-risk groups.” United European gastroenterology journal 3.2 (2015): 106-120.
(2) Igbinedion, Samuel O., et al. “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: All wheat attack is not celiac.” World journal of gastroenterology 23.40 (2017): 7201.
(3) Elli, Luca, et al. “Diagnosis of gluten related disorders: Celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” World journal of gastroenterology: WJG 21.23 (2015): 7110.
(4) Vazquez–Roque, Maria I., et al. “A controlled trial of gluten-free diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhea: effects on bowel frequency and intestinal function.” Gastroenterology 144.5 (2013): 903-911.
About the Author
Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.