Everybody is talking about gluten- but do you know what it is? There was a recent segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live where the average person following a gluten-free diet showed very little knowledge about what gluten is.
So what is gluten exactly, and why should you care? Should you try a gluten-free diet? I’m going to answer this question in two parts. In Part One, I’m going to explain what gluten is, review the medical conditions associated with gluten, and help you understand why a gluten-free diet may or may not help a person lose weight. In Part Two, I’ll discuss three questions you should ask before you try a gluten-free diet.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is the stuff that gives bread dough its elasticity and chewy texture. Gluten is in bread, bagels, muffins, crackers, noodles, pretzels, cookies, cakes– everything that is made with wheat. Because of it’s unique properties, gluten is added to a number of processed foods. Gluten can be found in a lot of unexpected places, such as beer, soy sauce, imitation meats, ice cream, cosmetics, and paper plates.
Why Should You Care?
There are three different conditions associated with gluten: wheat allergy, Celiac Disease, and Gluten Intolerance. A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat. It works according to the same mechanism in the body as any other allergy. It results in swelling, itching of the body or the throat, and anaphylaxis. According to the Mayo Clinic, most children with a wheat allergy outgrow it between the ages of 3 and 5. This usually isn’t the major problem for adults.
Some people have a serious medical condition called Celiac Disease (also known as Celiac Sprue). According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, it’s estimated that approximately 1 in 133 people, or 1% of the population, has Celiac Disease. It’s also estimated that 83% of the people who have Celiac are undiagnosed, or are misdiagnosed with other conditions. Celiac Disease isn’t an allergy, it is condition where the body has an autoimmune reaction to a protein contained in gluten called gliadin.
Celiac Disease is diagnosed by an intestinal biopsy, usually done after blood tests indicate an immune reaction to gluten. When the biopsy shows damage to the villi lining the intestines, a diagnosis of Celiac Disease is made. It’s a pretty hard and fast medical rule- if there’s no intestinal damage, there’s no Celiac Disease.
Even if you have the genetic marker for Celiac Disease, it only indicates that you have the potential to develop Celiac, not that you have it right now. There’s no cure for Celiac disease, but it can be managed by eating a gluten-free diet.
The final condition related to gluten is non-Celiac gluten intolerance. Gluten intolerance is often diagnosed when blood tests show that the body is having an immune reaction to gluten, but without confirmation of the intestinal damage that is necessary for the diagnosis of Celiac. Some people also self-diagnose gluten intolerance with an elimination diet. If you eliminate gluten from your diet for several weeks and your symptoms improve, and the symptoms come back with the re-introduction of gluten, a reasonable person might conclude that gluten is causing those symptoms.
Part of the controversy about gluten is due to the fact that there’s disagreement in the medical community about whether gluten intolerance actually exists as a “real” disorder. Some doctors believe that Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance are two medically distinct conditions. Some doctors believe gluten intolerance is merely the result of the placebo effect. Others believe that so-called non-celiac gluten intolerance is actually caused by a reaction to other foods called FODMAPS. Many people believe gluten intolerance is just another fad diet that will eventually blow over.
Many people with Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance discover that they have intolerances to other foods. Gluten intolerance is commonly associated with intolerance to dairy, soy and eggs, among other things. After people give up gluten, they sometimes discover that they need to give up other foods as well. One possible explanation for multiple food intolerances is Leaky Gut Syndrome. When the intestines are damaged or become permeable due to the effects of gluten, incompletely digested proteins and fats can “leak” out into the blood stream, causing an autoimmune reaction.
Will Going Gluten-Free Help Me Lose Weight?
Sometimes you hear claims that going gluten-free will cause weight loss. It’s important to understand that going gluten-free may not help a person lose weight. When a person with Celiac Disease goes gluten-free, they usually gain weight, not lose it, because they are starting to absorb the calories and nutrients that their bodies could not absorb through their damaged intestines. Some people with gluten intolerance can lose weight by going gluten-free, but this is because their body’s inflammation response is reduced. Nobody is going to lose a lot of weight by replacing processed foods with gluten-free versions of processed foods. Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, claims that eliminating wheat from your diet can cause dramatic weight loss. But the diet he advocates is really more of a grain-free approach to eating- he’s not getting people to lose weight by merely going gluten-free. Dr. Steven Wangen, author of Healthier Without Wheat, explains that going gluten-free can have a multitude of benefits, and weight loss is only one of those benefits.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, as many as 18 million Americans have some form of gluten intolerance. Could you be one of these people? In Part Two, I will go over three questions you should ask before you consider going gluten-free.