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What Is Gluten? Analyzing and Interpreting

Spencer Cailas

It’s been a while since “gluten” has become a buzzword of sorts in the world of food and health. What is gluten? Why are celebrities are cutting it out of their diets?

The so-called pseudo experts claim that it can be linked to depression, Alzheimer’s and even diabetes. And there’s a score of alarmist books by influence’s that are propagating unverified facts about Gluten to the general population, who have now started to look at it as public health enemy.

‘Wait, does that contain gluten? You’ve got to be kidding me.’

What has turned this complex protein found in most of the foods we eat, into the bête noir of the current decade?

Why is there a sudden surge in the demand for gluten free food?

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a combination of two proteins that is found in Wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Its function is to nourish the plant embryos during germination, and when used as food, it works as glue, giving shape to the food items.

The adhesive quality of gluten gives dough the elasticity that allows one to shape it according to one’s preferences.  It is the same adhesive quality that gives bread the chewy texture that is much adored.

To top it off, gluten traps air and swells up which causes bread to rise during baking.

There are two different types of protein in gluten, called glutenin and gliadin. It’s the latter that is getting a bad rap due to the purported negative health implications.

Not all grains contain gluten, though. Savants of the gluten-free diet advocate using grains like brown rice, Quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, corn, and sorghum.

Oats are also Gluten free. But many a time, the processing may contaminate it.

Is Gluten Harmful?

Understanding what is gluten comes first, the big question, though, is whether gluten is as bad for your health as it is made out to be.

Gluten is typically considered harmful for people with one of the following conditions.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease (or Coeliac) or is an autoimmune disorder that is now considered to be the most severe type of gluten intolerance. In people with this condition, the body triggers an autoimmune response to gluten during digestion in the gut.

Along with attacking gluten, the immune system also attacks the lining of the gut eventually damaging the small intestine and causing severe nutritional deficiencies.

It is estimated that 0.7 to 1% of the population suffers from it. But almost 80% of the people who have this disease are unaware of it, because the symptoms are identical to those caused by several other conditions.

Some of the symptoms are digestive problems, bloating, diarrhea, headache, lethargy, rashes on the skin, depression, damaged tissue of the small intestine and weight loss.

Some people do not have any of these symptoms mentioned above. They only have anemia or tiredness, and it is tough to link these symptoms to gluten use straight away, which makes it one of the most difficult conditions to diagnose.

If you’re celiac, then going gluten free will completely transform your life, and may be the only treatment possible.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

There is a larger percentage of the population that does not have Celiac Disease but may experience the same symptoms upon consuming gluten based foods.

The only difference is that the tissues of their intestines do not show any signs of damage, which is usually the case in Celiac Disease.

This condition has only recently been discovered by scientists and is called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.  While gluten sensitivity is not clearly defined yet, some of the commonly noted symptoms with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity are diarrhea, stomach pain, tiredness, bloating and depression.

Some experts opine that Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity may not be a real condition at all and that the symptoms may be linked to the use of some other substances, or maybe a digestive problem or just a placebo effect.

In a progressive study conducted on 400 self-diagnosed gluten intolerant people to assess the causes of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, it was detected that only 27 people had NCGS. [1]

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is one of the commonest gut disorders in the world that is characterized by acute pain in the abdomen along with symptoms like diarrhea, constipation and repeated or intermittent episodes of both. It is almost used as a catchall phrase when physicians are unable to determine the origin of the gut disorder.

Approximately 7 to 20% of the population in the United States are affected by IBS and going gluten free, may offer some benefits according to recent research.

Since most of the gluten grains are also high in starches and sugar, it is fermented quickly by the bacteria in the gut which causes symptoms like bloating, cramping and gas.

Some patients have been able to reduce their IBS symptoms by going gluten free and the symptoms returned when gluten was reintroduced into their diets after a 6-month span.

Gluten Ataxia

Gluten Ataxia is an autoimmune neurological condition that affects muscle coordination causing symptoms like fatigue, difficulty in swallowing, speaking, muscle tremors and abnormal gait.

There are many causes of Ataxia, but a few of them are linked to gluten, one of the major ones being the autoimmune damage caused to the brain and the central nervous system by gluten.

Wheat Allergy

Wheat Allergy is a rare type of allergy that is triggered when the body is over sensitized to Wheat. It is characterized by symptoms like hives, rashes, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, asthma, headaches and in extremely rare cases, Anaphylaxis.

The condition is more commonly seen in children and most children (65%) outgrow it by the time they reach the age of 12.

People with a wheat allergy are advised to strictly avoid wheat and any foods that contain wheat. Since wheat is the primarily used grain in the world and a major source of gluten, going gluten free comes naturally to people suffering from it. [2]

Are you Gluten Intolerant?

Now that you know what is gluten, how do you know if you’re intolerant? Ever since word first broke out linking gluten to a wide range of less-than-desirable health conditions, there has been an explosion in the number of people who ‘feel’ that they are gluten Intolerant.

This may partly stem from the fact that the symptoms of gluten intolerance are very similar to the symptoms experienced in a variety of other conditions.

Most people self-diagnose and switch to a gluten free diet at least for a temporary time frame to see if there is an improvement in their symptoms, which is completely harmless by the way. But when they are unable to experience any difference, they include Gluten back into their diets.

There is only one way to determine if you are Gluten Intolerant, rule out the conditions one by one.

Getting screened for Celiac

The physician will conduct a serologic (blood) test that screens your blood for antibodies linked to Celiac disease. One of the most commonly used tests is a tTG-IgA test.

If the reports suggest that you may have Celiac, then a biopsy of the small intestine will be recommended to confirm this.

Endoscopic biopsy

An Endoscopic Biopsy of the small intestine will be conducted to analyze if it shows signs of damage that is typically seen in Celiac disease.

For conditions like Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, the only way to diagnose if you are gluten intolerant is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet for a few weeks and see if there is an improvement in your symptoms.

How Can You Avoid Gluten

Gluten is most commonly found in the following foods.

  • Wheat (Starch, Bran, Germ)
  • Spelt
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Pasta
  • Semolina
  • Couscous
  • Triticale
  • Seitan
  • Bulgur
  • Oats (may be processed in plants that also process gluten containing grains. This may contaminate it)

Since gluten is added to a lot of processed foods for its elasticity, check food labels before consuming it to ensure that you are avoiding it completely.

So what can you eat?

When you switch to a gluten-free diet, it may seem daunting to strike-off some of the foods that you have grown up eating every single day. But you will be pleased to know that there are many equally healthy replacements that can take its place.

  • All fruits and veggies
  • Legumes (Peas, Beans, Lentils, Soybeans, peanuts etc)
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Lean Red Meat
  • Rice
  • Fish
  • Other grains (Buckwheat, Millet, Quinoa, Amaranth, Soy, tapioca, Cassava)

For a more detailed guide on which foods are safe to be consumed, take a look at our gluten-free foods.

Gluten Related Symptoms

Most of the supposed studies that links gluten to an entire list of maladies are inconclusive. According to the GFS, it can be linked to the following conditions: [3]

  • Acid-reflux
  • Anemia
  • Thyroid disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Depression
  • Migraine
  • IBS
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Rashes
  • Mind fogging (lack of clarity)

They even go to the extent of stating that gluten is a potential neurotoxin and if you are gluten intolerant, then you must remove all traces of it from your pantry to lead a better life. Is there enough evidence to support these claims as conclusive? Not by a long shot.

The small intestine damage due to Celiac disease can cause severe nutritional deficiencies which can lead to a number of conditions like migraines, epilepsy, dementia and brain lesions. The Center for Peripheral Neuropathy states that approximately 10 percent of celiac patients develop neurological symptoms.

But anything other than that is inconclusive.

Should Gluten be Avoided?

Now that you know what is gluten, there is only one way to know if you will benefit from a gluten free diet.

Use the elimination method and try it for a few weeks. It is harmless and can help you make a decision and live a better and healthier lifestyle.

However, choose natural foods that are gluten free rather than just opting for processed foods with a gluten free label.

Processed foods are packed with sugar and refined grains, which are not particularly healthy.