By Magpie Group
We hear a lot about gluten these days and how it’s thought to have negative effect on our digestive systems. While it is true that gluten can be very harmful to those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, many other people avoid eating it, claiming it bad for their health and contributes to weight gain.
Just what is gluten anyway?
Gluten is a naturally-occurring protein found in some cereal grains that plays an important role in the growth of plants. It’s the gluten in the kernels of grains that nourishes the plant embryo as it grows. It also contributes to the elastic nature of bread dough, giving bread its chewy texture and helping it rise. Think of a pizza maker tossing and stretching out a ball of dough. Without the gluten, the dough would tear more easily and be difficult to keep together. It’s the gluten in the wheat that enables the pizza maker to do that.
Where is gluten found?
Cereal grains like wheat, barley and rye contain gluten. Other grains such as quinoa, corn, flax and rice do not have any gluten. While oats are naturally gluten-free, they may be contaminated during production with wheat, barley or rye seeds that are very hard to separate out.
Gluten is found in foods and beverages made with wheat, barley and rye such as:
Wheat flour is also used as a thickener, as a binding agent to hold substances together and in seasonings. Thus, gluten may also be found in other food products, including French fries, hot dogs, salad dressings, soy sauce and soups.
Why do we need grains in our diet?
The truth is that grains are an important part of a healthy diet and they contain many of the nutrients our body needs.
The kernel of a grain consists of three parts:
- Bran – The protective outer shell of the kernel that is high in fibre and B vitamins.
- Endosperm – This feeds a plant as it grows. It consists of starch, protein (including gluten in grains containing gluten), some B vitamins and minerals.
- Germ – This is the seed for a new plant, which contains healthy fats, B vitamins, minerals and some protein.
Whole grain foods are a healthier choice than refined grains because whole grain foods include all parts of the grain. Refined grains have some parts of the grain removed during processing. Examples of whole grain foods include quinoa, whole grain pasta, whole grain bread, whole oats or oatmeal and whole grain brown or wild rice. Find out more about whole grains.
Whole grains contain all three parts of the kernel and are the best option for you nutritionally. A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer. Whole-grain diets also help maintain regular bowel movements and promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon. Examples of whole grains include barley, rolled oats, quinoa and corn.
When is gluten bad for you?
Here are four instances where gluten should be avoided:
- People with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by dietary gluten, cannot eat gluten because it can damage the walls of their small intestine. This prevents them from absorbing the nutrients – like protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – that they need from food. About 1% of the population is estimated to have celiac disease, although it is believed that the majority of people who have it remain undiagnosed.1
Celiac disease is a serious disorder with patients being at risk for nutritional deficiencies and the development of other autoimmune disorders and other diseases. The diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed by a small intestinal biopsy and treatment consists of a strict gluten free diet for life.
- Some people are gluten sensitive. Although they may experience bloating, cramping and/or diarrhea after eating foods containing gluten, they do not test positive for celiac disease. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is frequently a self-diagnosis, so it’s difficult to know how prevalent it actually is. Symptoms are highly variable and may include both intestinal and non-intestinal symptoms. There is no diagnostic test for gluten sensitivity – it is determined by persistent symptoms and a negative diagnostic celiac test.
- A wheat allergy is caused by an allergy to one or more of the proteins in wheat, but not necessarily gluten. It is a rare allergy that may result in skin, respiratory or gastrointestinal reactions. When you have a wheat allergy, your immune system thinks that the wheat proteins are harmful and triggers different symptoms. A wheat allergy is most common in children – and two thirds outgrow it by age 12.2
It is diagnosed through blood tests and a food challenge, which involves eating food slowly and in gradually increasing amounts under medical supervision.
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is a skin rash that results from eating gluten. It is an autoimmune response that results in a persistent red itchy skin rash that may produce blisters and bumps. Although people with celiac disease may have DH, the reverse is not always true. The precise cause is unknown.
People who are gluten-free because of health issues follow a diet carefully prescribed by a medical doctor or Registered Dietitian. This is essentially a diet that removes all foods that contain or may be mixed with or exposed to gluten.
However, since gluten-containing whole grains contain fibre and nutrients including B vitamins, magnesium and iron, it’s important to make up for these missing nutrients. This involves eating naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs and poultry and non-gluten whole grains.
It should be noted, however, that if you do not have celiac disease or another gluten-related dietary issue, a gluten-free diet may actually be bad for your health. Here’s why:
- Many processed gluten-free foods contain refined grains. Refined grains (e.g., white rice, white flour) have had the germ and bran removed during processing and are not as healthy as whole grains. They also have additional fat and sugar to make them tastier, which can contribute to weight gain and weight-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
- Refined grains contain less fibre. Fibre helps lower cholesterol, improves digestion and controls blood sugar levels.
- Eating foods containing less dietary fibre often means you’ll eat more of them. Dietary fibre makes you feel full, resulting in you eating fewer calories.
The bottom line is that, for the vast majority of people, gluten is more friend than foe. It’s part of whole grains, which are an important contributor of nutrients in a healthy diet. The fact is that avoiding gluten can actually be harmful for most people. But for a small portion of the population, celiac disease and gluten-related health issues require that their diets be gluten-free.
If you think you may have celiac disease or another gluten-related dietary problem, see your doctor or consult a Registered Dietitian.
More information on whole grains:
- Health Perks from Intact Grains
- Debunking Food Myths: Canola oil, Multi-Grains and Potatoes
- Whole Grains are Little Packets of Go