Gluten-free for Dummies

bread-breakfast-gluten-intoleranceDamned, cursed, the evil in one word: Gluten. Before even knowing what it is and where it comes from everyone understood pretty fast, you’re better off without it. (Could you imagine) the food industry got it even faster! All of a sudden gluten-free products were all over the place and to find in the average pantry. Also foods naturally free of gluten suddenly couldn’t hold themselves back from marketing their (new) benefit. Passing the dairy- and lactose-free segment, gluten-free has in the recent years rapidly increased its share on the market and yet not exhausted its full growth potential. Is it really healthier than the “conventional” choice?

Gluten is a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye. In fact, its main purpose in the grain is to nourish the plant during the seed germination – it’s needed to make the plant grow (up to that point a rather charitable guy, no?) Furthermore, and maybe more interesting to us: It’s sexy! Gluten gives bakery products, pizza and pasta their elastic and chewy texture… mhhhhmm… an entire food culture living on gluten! However, coming from what must be heaven to some people at least (yes, pastry does appear in my dreams) now back to what was indicated before: There is a dark side in the life cycle of gluten: when it enters the gut.

Gluten is the only dietary protein that is indigestible for our stomachs. You might think: Fair enough, there are other food components (like fibre) that we cannot digest… however, being a protein it is more likely to interfere with the autoimmune system causing more or less severe reactions. With a prevalence of 1-2 % a rather small proportion of the European population suffer from celiac disease – an inherited autoimmune disease where gluten becomes life-threatening by strongly damaging the intestinal wall. People affected often show stomach pain, diarrhoea, anemia and weight loss because the inflamed gut cannot absorb nutrients well. Still incurable there is only one treatment: A life-long strict gluten-free diet.

Apart from celiac disease more and more people claim to have stomach ache and digestion problems due to not tolerating gluten. However, while celiac disease can be diagnosed by anti-bodies or biopsy tests there are no reliable tests for other related intolerances. Moreover, it became clear that the intestinal discomfort some people develop when they eat wheat and other grains does not necessarily need be due to gluten exclusively and therefore it should be rather referred to as wheat intolerance. In any case, the only way to know if you might be sensitive to gluten or wheat in general is to undergo an elimination diet (means excluding the respective from your diet over a given time frame) – bearing in mind that a wide range of processed foods and drinks such as instant food (and, sorry guys, beer too!) may contain gluten as well.

Even though the gluten-free hype has already shown to be able to cause a placebo effect in part of the healthy population – some people argue they feel healthier as they believe they do good by avoiding gluten. However, there is no scientific evidence on beneficial health outcomes resulting from a gluten-free diet in the broad (“healthy”) population. On the contrary, merely celiac disease patients and people with gluten sensitivity are recommended to follow a strictly gluten-free diet. For all others there is to consider:

  • Don’t underestimate whole grain products. It’s a shame that products that have served us as staple foods (especially not to neglect during winter and war periods) over thousands of years lose their dignity within not even a decade. Whole grain products are a good source for fibre, iron, folic acid, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. By eliminating wheat and co. you should make sure to replace their nutritional profile by varying your choice among other nutrient-dense foods.
  • Not feeling bloated? Concerns arise that a diet low in gluten may actually “cover” wheat intolerances or even celiac disease and increase the risk for not being diagnosed. Symptoms may just not occur strong or frequent enough and remain disregarded. If you are concerned about gluten intolerance you may go on a medically supervised elimination diet.
  • Think Paleo. Processed gluten-free foods often contain more fat, sugar or other additives compensating for the texture and therefore can result in undesirable weight gain. The Paleo or “stone age” diet excludes gluten as well but so does it with highly processed products. “Allowed” as carbohydrate source in Paleo are root vegetables and fruits, however, if your aim is to go gluten-free only, you could of course include unprocessed carb sources such as pseudocereals as buckwheat or quinoa, and legumes which are rich in protein and fibre.

As for everything else, the dose makes the poison and gluten doesn’t come on it’s own but in foods that contain much more than this one substance. Even researchers want to often ignore the fact (it would make their life a lot easier indeed) that finding a significant cause-effect-relationship between a single ingredient and a health outcome is a long way to go and can be biased by many factors. I see it as important to listen to your body. Eat consciously and you’ll be the one who knows what works best for you.

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