Sit in any cafe in the world, and you'll be sure to hear someone asking this."Do you have gluten-free bagels?" Gluten-free has become like ordering egg white omelettes or asking for a bun-less burger, a decision that appears to be synonymous with caring for your health. It's so prevalent that you would be forgiven if you thought that gluten intolerance was a new phenomenon; everyone is suddenly bloated and has cramps. And yes, the market seems to think so, too; our supermarket shelves are filling up fast with gluten-free replacement products.
There is no doubt that gluten intolerance is on the rise, and for a simple reason at that. The more our diets rely on wheat-based products such as bread, pasta, pizzas, etc., the more we will see people who are intolerant to gluten. According to multiple market-size reports, gluten-free products are seeing an exponential rise in demand, with more and more people choosing to swap their regular bread and cookies with gluten-free versions of this food.
An article titled Gluten-free industry is healthy but is the food? published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal offers some insights into the exponential rise of gluten-free products. According to the article, the market growth is driven by multiple factors, such as social media and traditional marketing, aggressive consumer-directed marketing by manufacturers and retail outlets, and reports in medical literature and mainstream press of the clinic benefits related to gluten avoidance. Simply put – we're constantly told gluten is bad, from every source and angle. This heavy proliferation of the same message is why many gluten-free consumers aren't entirely sure why they are buying gluten-free products, other than the assumption that it's good for you.
But is gluten as dangerous as we think it is, and is it necessary for everyone to eliminate it for their health and waistlines?
Also read: When dairy makes you sick
So, what is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, especially in wheat. According to the Harvard T.H Chang School of Public Health, gluten is found in wheat, barley, bulgur, rye, spelt, and oats (although minimal). However, not all carbohydrate sources contain gluten. Naturally, gluten-free foods include rice, buckwheat, teff, quinoa, corn, and millets. The surprising thing is that gluten can also be found in foods that aren't wheat-based, such as MSG, lecithin, emulsifiers, and soy; some medications and supplements may also contain gluten. Given the food industry's propensity for processing foods by adding MSG and emulsifiers, gluten is found almost everywhere.
The good about gluten
Here is the thing: gluten isn't inherently bad. There are plenty of good things to say about gluten, in fact. It makes your bread bouncy, your noodles elastic, and your pizza dough stretchy. It adds that incredible visual and tactile sensory aspect to our carbohydrates, which is why products deemed gluten-free are often a little less sensory-stimulating than the original version.
Some interesting research also shows that gluten increases our good gut microbiota.Yolanda Sanz, in her study Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult humans, showed that participants consuming a gluten-free diet saw reductions in healthy forms of gut bacteria such as Bifidobacterium, B.longum, and lactobacillus. At the same time, increases in opportunistic pathogens were found. Sanz believes this is because the gut composition is susceptible to dietary changes, especially with the carbohydrate sources you consume.
What is gluten intolerance?
Although there are positives to gluten, there are downsides too. Just like not everyone can tolerate eating bananas, not everyone can tolerate eating wheat-based products. However, not all uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms mean you have gluten intolerance.You can have wheat-based allergies, celiac disease, or another allergic reaction to another protein in wheat other than gluten.
Gluten intolerance is the most common food sensitivity disease of the intestine.Symptoms can range from mild to severe.Mild symptoms can be diarrhoea, bloating, flatulence, and uncomfortable stools to more severe symptoms such as weight loss or malnutrition.However, reactions don't always exhibit themselves through specific symptoms; there may be seemingly unrelated issues that can be linked back to gluten intolerance or at least gluten sensitivity.These symptoms may be gastric reflux, nutrient deficiencies such as low iron levels, fat in the stools, aching joints, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue, skin rashes, and irregular menstrual cycles, to name a few.
Food allergies kick off when the body recognizes part of its structure as a potential threat, and in some people, gluten can trigger this immune response.White cells recognize the antigens and destroy them.However, when they can become overwhelmed, inflammation can flare up.Over time, inflammation can start wearing down your body parts, and chronic inflammation in the gut can atrophy and flatten the intestinal lining, impairing your ability to digest.The long-term side effects of this gastrointestinal inflammation caused by gluten intolerance can be nutrient malabsorption and intestinal scarring.This phenomenon can loosen or open the cells in your intestines, causing food to enter your bloodstream, which is why you can have seemingly unrelated responses elsewhere in your body.
How to test for gluten intolerance
Since your body makes antibodies in response to harmful invaders, you can do an allergen-based blood test to check the serum for gluten-associated antibodies.You can also do an intestinal biopsy or test your stool for excreted antibodies.Because wheat-based products contain other potential allergens than just gluten, gluten may not always be at fault.These tests may also be inconclusive, so a thoughtful elimination diet to test how your body responds to eliminating gluten is another tool you can use to determine if you have a sensitivity or intolerance.
Going gluten-free to lose weight?
As you may see, the long-term effects of gluten on a body that can't tolerate it can be pretty detrimental.And yes, not addressing it can damage your gut and overall well-being.In these cases, finding gluten-free alternatives is essential to your quality of life.
However, some people want to embark on a gluten-free diet because they assume it's either better for their health or can help them lose weight. When consuming gluten-free products, weight loss isn't always a given: how many calories you consume and the nutritional quality of your food matters a lot more.
I urge you to look at the back of your gluten-free products before committing to them for weight loss.According to Cross, many mainstream gluten-free products are higher on the glycemic index, lack vital nutrients such as dietary fibre, folic acid, calcium, and B vitamins, or are heavily processed.
Just because a product is deemed gluten-free doesn't make it inherently healthy or low-calorie; it can contain relatively high volumes of sugar, saturated fats, and sodium.
Also read: Do I really have to switch to brown rice?
There are plenty of naturally occurring gluten-free foods such as fruit, vegetables, rice, quinoa, and millet that you can build your diet around without requiring constant substitute products to make up the bulk of your diet.However, before going gluten-free, it's a good idea to work with a dietician or nutritionist to plan your meals to consume the missing vital nutrients through other means.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach