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What is gluten and is it actually bad for you?

For such a tiny thing, gluten has gotten a lot of press over the last decade.

Gluten is a substance that forms in wheat and other wheat-related grains when specific proteins (gliadins, prolamins) come in contact with water (e.g. the second it hits your mouth or in the preparation process). Gluten is actually a beloved substance when it comes to baked goods; it forms a sticky, elastic network that traps air and creates the deliciously addictive chewy texture we all adore in breads and pastries. 

So, why the headlines?

Over the years, an autoimmune disease called Celiac disease has been growing in prevalence; in this condition, individuals who consume gluten experience damage to the lining of their small intestine and severe health consequences.

The only true treatment for individuals with celiac disease is avoiding all forms of gluten (wheat, barley, rye, oats unless labeled gluten-free, and any products that may contain derivatives of these grains).

But, what if you don’t have celiac disease?

There are a few other reasons why you might want to experiment with avoiding gluten or wheat in your diet. Over the last few years, there have been anecdotal reports of a rising number of individuals who jumped on the gluten-free diet train and suddenly discovered that their autoimmune condition or digestive condition improved: better skin, less pain, more energy, normal bowel movements, etc.

What gives?

Scientists have been trying to figure out what the effect might be and have found the following:
–  Wheat is considered a FODMAP (fermentable, oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols), which are short chain carbohydrates that can cause gas, bloating and stomach pain in some people; going gluten free would cut out wheat and, viola! No symptoms.
–  Wheat also contains amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs), which recent research has found to trigger immune responses in the body and increase inflammation. Consequently, gluten wouldn’t be the culprit in this scenario.
–  Gluten is just dang hard to digest. Ancient cultures used to sprout and ferment bread (think sourdough) and this greatly increased the digestibility of gluten. In our modern age, where everything is done in a hurry, these old methods of preparation have been pushed to the wayside – and some of us have digestive enzymes that just aren’t up to the task.

So, to circle back to the question, should you be avoiding gluten?

Inherently, no. If you don’t have celiac disease, science has not unearthed anything particularly toxic about gluten; it is a protein, just like any other.

However, it is worth pointing out that science, particularly nutritional science, lags behind addressing many common illnesses today.

If you are currently coping with a digestive, autoimmune or inflammatory condition that isn’t improving despite medical attention, it could be worth trialing a gluten/wheat-free diet.

Whether it’s the gluten itself or something else about wheat, you might feel better – and who doesn’t want that?


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