Is Gluten Bad for Me?

Written by Alyssa Baird, Meredith College Dietetic Intern 

Gluten has become a hot topic in nutrition, but how many of us actually know what it is or why we are avoiding it?

Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. This means it is also in related products including semolina, durum, and farro. Gluten is like a glue that helps hold food together and makes your favorite bread airy and fluffy. 

So, why should you avoid it?

The short answer is - you shouldn’t! That is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance/allergy.

Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disease. When gluten is ingested even in the smallest amounts, the body attacks and damages the “villi” in the small intestine, which are microscopic projections that help you absorb nutrients. Thus, gluten + celiac disease = altered nutrient absorption which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, weight loss, and other long-term health problems. Those with celiac disease must avoid gluten completely in order to recover.

There are also people who suffer from “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”, a condition which has been highly controversial and debated due to its lack of diagnostic tests. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity does not cause an immune or an autoimmune reaction like celiac disease or a wheat allergy does and is diagnosed by ruling out these conditions rather than having its own diagnostic procedure. People with gluten sensitivity may experience symptoms similar to people with celiac disease, however it does not cause damage to the intestine.  It is not clear whether it is gluten that is the trigger of these symptoms or if there are other components of grains that are triggering it.  There is no cure but many people eliminate gluten from the diet and find it can alleviate these symptoms. 

The majority of people tolerate gluten and wheat products just fine. Some people tolerate certain gluten-containing foods and find others trigger symptoms.  So, keep a journal and take note of which items cause discomfort. If you don’t experience any adverse symptoms when eating them, remember to enjoy in moderation and choose whole grain options!

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