We’ve all heard it either in the media or know someone who’s either on a gluten-free diet or strongly advocates for it. Dietary trends keep changing all the time and the popularity of the gluten-free diet has been on an upward trend for the last almost two decades.
One study, in particular, showed that about 65% of the American adult population believes that gluten-free foods are healthier. And about 27% adopted a gluten-free diet for weight loss purposes. The question is, is there any merit to going “gluten-free?”
Given how essential a diet is to overall health, it’s important to examine all facts and understand the basics of it before adopting something new or “trendy.”
So, is gluten really bad for you or is it just another health frenzy? Let’s start from the basics.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, but the most common source is wheat. Gluten contains two compounds: gliadin and glutenin— of which gliadin is responsible for the negative side effects experienced by gluten-intolerant people.
Gluten provides flavor, and texture and serves as a binding agent—which is why wheat tastes great and becomes sticky when mixed with water. These properties make gluten ideal for extraction and can be added to other food products.
While most people can easily digest gluten without any adverse reactions, you may experience serious reactions from gluten consumption if you suffer from the following conditions:
- Celiac disease
- Wheat allergy
- Sensitivity to gluten
How Does Gluten Affect the Body?
The effects of gluten on the body depend on the level of gluten sensitivity or other underlying medical conditions that may affect how your body breaks down gluten.
Our bodies produce enzymes to facilitate digestion. Gluten is proteinous in nature and the enzyme responsible for breaking down gluten is one called protease. The challenge is protease cannot fully break down gluten which means some of it will end up in the small intestines.
For people without celiac, gluten sensitivity, or a compromised small intestine function, the presence of gluten in the small intestines does not affect their bodies. Such people can reap more health benefits from taking gluten given that foods containing gluten are often full of other nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.
However, for those with gluten intolerance, the undigested gluten triggers a response that causes different reactions and undesired symptoms such as:
- Skin rashes
Let’s have a closer look at how gluten affects people diagnosed with gluten intolerance and other gluten allergies.
Complications Associated with Gluten Intolerance
As we’ve mentioned before, most gluten-related complications are a result of undigested gluten that finds its way into the small intestines. The body’s reaction thereafter depends on the specific condition you may be suffering from.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the small intestines and affects about 1% of people around the world. One of the main causes of celiac is genetic factors and research shows that environmental factors such as early introduction to wheat in infants.
Other research also shows that taking gluten may trigger the development of celiac disease in at-risk persons and worsen symptoms in those who have been diagnosed. What happens when you take gluten with a celiac diagnosis is more damage to the lining of your intestinal walls.
The intestinal damage prevents your body from absorbing nutrients, causing malnutrition which may inhibit growth and development in children suffering from celiac disease.
Other side effects of taking gluten if you have celiac disease include:
- Weight loss
- Anemia and other serious complications
Celiac disease has no cure, however, different studies and clinical trials show that patients who observe a strict gluten-free diet experience symptom relief. Cutting out gluten prevents flare-ups in your intestines and promotes healing.
Like many allergies, wheat allergy occurs when your body’s immune system is compromised, causing an extreme reaction to food substances that would not otherwise be considered harmful— in this case, wheat. While other gluten-intolerant conditions are mostly triggered by the ingestion of gluten (gliadin), wheat allergy may be triggered even by inhaling or coming to skin contact with wheat or products containing wheat.
The symptoms of wheat allergy vary from mild to severe, including:
- Stomach cramps
- Anaphylaxis (can be life-threatening)
Remedies for wheat allergies include adopting a gluten-free diet and medication in cases of extreme food reactions.
Sensitivity to Gluten
Conditions that trigger adverse body reactions to gluten ingestion and are not related to celiac or wheat allergies are classified as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). To be diagnosed with NCGS, both celiac and wheat allergies have to be ruled out.
Gluten ingestion in people with NCGS triggers intestinal problems, along with the following other symptoms:
- Joint pain
NCGS patients report improvement in symptoms and flare-ups by staying free of gluten.
How are Gluten Allergies/Intolerance Diagnosed?
Most gluten intolerance conditions are diagnosed through a blood test which may prompt further investigation or a series of tests to eliminate possible diagnoses.
For celiac disease, your doctor will conduct the following blood tests:
- Serology test— when your body detects the presence of a harmful substance, it induces the production of specific antibodies to fight the “intruder”. A serology test checks for increased levels of antibody proteins that fight gluten indicating your body’s reaction against gluten.
- Genetic test— people lacking the antigens HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 are genetically predisposed to celiac disease. The presence of the antigen in your body rules out celiac disease.
Wheat allergies are diagnosed either via a blood test or skin test. In the blood test, your doctor will screen your blood for antibodies associated with a wheat allergy. For the skin test, your doctor will inject a small dose of purified wheat protein into your skin to check for signs of allergy.
Should I Go on a Gluten-free Diet?
Going on a gluten-free diet is critical for people with gluten intolerance. However, if your body can tolerate gluten well, you may also benefit from a gluten-free diet. Here’s how.
- Weight loss— gluten intake is associated with wheat consumption which is high in carbohydrates. Eliminating gluten from your diet not only does away with simple carbs from wheat but makes it easy to refrain from processed foods whose main ingredient is gluten-filled foods.
- Reduced inflammation — gluten sensitivity is characterized by inflammation in other parts of the body. Since there’s no definite way to diagnose it, you may unknowingly be suffering from gluten sensitivity. A gluten-free diet can help reduce inflammation in other parts of the body, triggered by gluten consumption.
Changes in Wheat Over the Past Century
Gluten intolerance and sensitivity have been on the rise in recent years, with a four fold increase in prevalence just within the last 60 years. Wheat has been a staple food across several cultures worldwide for centuries and previous generations tolerated gluten ingestion fairly well. This has prompted researchers to question the changes in wheat over the last century to find a causal link between modern wheat varieties and the rising cases of gluten intolerance.
One study by the Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology as reported by Science Daily analyzed 60 wheat varieties between 1891 and 2010 to figure out the differences. The results showed that modern wheat varieties contain less protein than older varieties. No significant changes in gluten composition were noted. However, there were slight changes in gluten composition—18%reduction in gliadins and a 25% increase in glutenins.
The results showed no causal relationship between the changes in wheat varieties and an increase in gluten intolerance. More research should be carried out to understand the true causes of gluten intolerance in this era.
Start a Healthy Gluten-Free Journey with Binto
There are several speculations on the causes of gluten intolerance, and more disheartening is the fact that NCGS has no clear diagnosis. The best solution to maintaining a healthy body is adopting a gluten-free diet, especially when you experience adverse reactions after ingesting gluten. It’s also important to supplement your diet with healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to make up for fiber minerals and vitamins you may miss by not taking wheat.
At Binto, we offer consultations with nurses, physicians, associates, and dietitians to help who can help you understand how your body works and the challenges you may be facing. Our team of professionals will work with you to help you create a healthy and sustainable diet that works well for your body. Book a consultation with us today.