What Is Gluten And Why All The Fuss?

Mark Hyman once said, “An estimated 99 percent of people who have a problem with eating gluten don’t even know it. They ascribe their ill health to symptoms of something else—not gluten sensitivity, which is 100 percent curable.” Does that sound familiar to anything you have read or seen in the last few years? Gluten has been making major headlines and not just in newspapers and health magazines. You’d be hard-pressed to walk the aisles of a grocery store and miss all the gluten-free options. Conversely, foods that do contain gluten typically specify that near the nutritional information on the back of a container or box. It makes anyone wonder who’s not privy to the specifics: What is gluten and why all the fuss?

The number of Americans going gluten-free has tripled since 2009—that’s right, tripled! Today 3.1 million people in the United States follow a gluten-free diet; 72 percent of that 3.1 million are classified as “PWAGs” – people without celiac disease avoiding gluten—according to a recent article in Forbes Magazine.  

The gluten-free market alone is worth nearly $4.2 billion in the United States alone, according to Packaged Facts. The growth rate of gluten-free foods has increased by 17% since 2012. Celebrities such as Ryan Phillippe, Victoria Beckham, Jessica Simpson and Zooey Deschanel are all very public about being gluten-free, helping make it more mainstream. While this is clearly big business, it also creates questions about our food and why this recent trend is booming. Are you aware of what gluten is and why so many people are facing gluten intolerances?  

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat. Gluten helps maintain their shape, functioning as a sort of “glue” that holds food together. It can be found in many different types of foods across various food groups. Primarily, though, gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, as well as other grain relatives. It is the substance that aids bread as the dough is rising; it’s also what makes bread so chewy.

Gluten can be found in other common foods, such as: wheat starch, cracked wheat, wheat bran, couscous, spelt, barley, oats, faro, bread, pastas, even some instances of chicken broth, veggie burgers, soy sauce and salad dressings. Truly—gluten is in many foods in the United States, so much so we all don’t realize exactly how much of it we’re really consuming. If you took the time to pick apart all the different foods that you consume gluten in, you would be shocked and amazed at what a long and surprising list it would be.

So if gluten is in most of our food—what’s the problem? This is an important question, as gluten can cause a variety of different medical issues. Just on the surface level, gluten can cause: autoimmune disease, B12 deficiency, chronic fatigue, gas and bloating, iron deficiency anemia, leaky gut, acid reflux, heartburn, bone loss, unexplained fertility, depression, as well as migraine headaches—just to name a few primary diseases. Many people don’t know gluten can be the cause of some of these medical problems, making gluten awareness so crucial in taking control of your body, your food intake, and your health.  


Celiac Disease vs. Gluten-Free

It’s important to note the difference between Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. While they may be erroneously used interchangeably, they are, in fact, different conditions. Celiac is an autoimmune disorder in which an intolerance to gluten can severely damage the small intestine. Over time, constant gluten exposure can lead to intestinal damage, physical pain, as well as poor nutrient absorption. A person who has Celiac Disease should steer clear of all gluten and consume a completely gluten-free diet.

Gluten Sensitivity, on the other hand, is a condition wherein a person with a sensitivity to gluten might experience bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, headaches and even fatigue after consuming foods with gluten. Naturally, eliminating gluten from diets can drastically improve these symptoms.  

Foods That Are Gluten-Free

In addition to foods that are labeled gluten-free, the following foods are naturally gluten-free: vegetables, fruits, meat, legumes, dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, starches such as potatoes, quinoa, buckwheat, and rice.  

Drawbacks To Being Gluten-Free

While there is a lot of hype and publicity around the amazing gluten-free foods that are now available at groceries and restaurants all around the world, going gluten-free doesn’t necessarily come to be without its drawbacks. In some instances, your food choices might drastically be reduced, making it difficult to find meals that are tasty and also satisfy your nutritional content. There can be a reduced intake of fat when forgoing many bread-like carbohydrates and focusing on meat and cheese and other dairy products.

Fat and sugar are often replacements in gluten-free products, making it difficult to find food that is low fat—after all, gluten-free, as most people who subscribe to the diet knows—does not equal low fat! Furthermore, people going gluten-free can encounter steeper costs for good. Kulai & Rashid did a study in 2013 about the price of gluten-free products and found they are 160% more expensive than regular products that contain gluten. Eek! Additionally, due to the decreased number of beneficial bacteria in the gut, the immune system can be slightly compromised, as well. 

Clearly, going gluten-free requires careful consideration, a slightly deeper pocketbook and a willingness to read nutrition labels more carefully.

Gluten-Free Myths

Similar to a previous point, gluten-free diets have often been associated with healthier diets. This is wrong, as gluten-free cookies, cakes and beer do not have less sugar or less calories, for that matter. Furthermore, gluten-free foods will not make you lose weight. However, because so many processed foods contain gluten, when you cut them out altogether, you will see an uptake in your overall health and wellness. Obviously, a diet with more fruits and vegetables, which are naturally gluten-free, is far better than a junk food-laden alternative.

Many also might claim that gluten sensitivity does not exist, which for anyone who has Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance can be infuriating. Doctors have documented intestinal inflammation in patients with Celiac and many patients who struggle with gluten have clear symptoms, such as gas and bloating or chronic fatigue. Don’t listen to the haters on this one—gluten intolerance is very real and anyone who tells you otherwise is spreading a myth!

Celiac Disease is a condition of which you can outgrow. Wrong! This is a pretty deceiving myth, as it’s been proven that Celiac, which is technically an autoimmune disease caused by gluten, is with you your whole life once you are diagnosed. For people with Celiac, the option of returning to consuming gluten is not one that’s at all possible—that is, unless they don’t want to suffer the terrible symptoms.  It’s also important to note that you can develop Celiac Disease at any point in time in your life, not just as a child. Screening processes for children and adults have advanced since the 1990s, helping patients determine their prognosis with more ease.

gluten free recipes

Gluten-Free Recipes

Just because you go gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to forgo taste, flavor, and culinary authenticity. There’s an entire world available to you. Here are a few recommendations to help you enhance your cooking at home and when you are out with friends at restaurants. (Note—many restaurants specify gluten-free entrees and orders, making it easier to identify!)

Grilled Fish Tacos: This is an amazing option, particularly when you use a light fish like fresh tilapia and a homemade mango salsa. Remember to embrace avocado, as it’s naturally gluten-free and provides an assortment of healthy fats and nutrients. Whether it’s for a Taco Tuesday or a happy hour after work, fish tacos with corn tortillas are the way to go for a healthy and enjoyable sans gluten snack!

 Blueberry Breakfast Cookie: Many people going gluten-free might think all cookies are off limits—but who said you can’t make your own? This is a great versatile snack—ideal for a quick grab-and-go breakfast or with milk after dinner when you’re having a quiet evening at home. Naturally sweetened and naturally high in fiber, using gluten-free ingredients to make these will have you appreciating the texture and decadent flavor. If you can, try to use fresh blueberries—but if not, frozen ones will also do!

Southwest Sweet Potato Salad: Sweet potatoes are filling and naturally gluten-free, making them a perfectly viable and delicious option to incorporate into a salad. Combine other gluten-free ingredients such as black beans, red onion, avocado and fresh lettuce mixed in with a cilantro light dressing. If you’re needing additional protein, top off with grilled chicken or steak. Hopefully, you’re getting hungry just by reading this!

In the end, you have to determine what is best for your body and what your digestive system can process. This may take some trial and error, but if you are experiencing some of these symptoms after consuming gluten products, maybe you want to try going gluten-free for a while to see if they subside. Thankfully, you have many options from which to choose.

LifestyleMegan Partridge