What you need to know about gluten

Nancy Teeter, RDN

Gluten-free (GF) diets are all the rage. Many people are confused about gluten, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Often, people believe that gluten-free products are healthier or that they may promote weight loss. My goal in writing this article is to replace misinformation with facts.

What is gluten? Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. In bread, it makes the dough elastic. Though it does not occur naturally in oats, gluten may show up in minute amounts as a result of cross-contamination in facilities that process a variety of grains. Gluten may also hide in many other foods, such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer and licorice.

Certain people must avoid gluten. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition. For people with celiac, a microscopic quantity of gluten can trigger the release of antibodies which mount an assault on the intestines. On top of unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea, the antibodies can damage the tiny villi in the intestines. That can lead to malnutrition—no matter how good the diet. Researchers estimate that as many as 1.8 million Americans may have celiac disease, though roughly 80% are undiagnosed.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is estimated to affect about six percent of Americans; however, there is no test for NCGS. Similar to celiac, it also involves an immune reaction to gluten, but unlike celiac disease, that reaction doesn’t cause the body to produce damaging antibodies. It is not life-threatening.

Some people should follow a GF diet. Eating a GF diet is essential for patients with celiac disease. People who test negative for celiac but have abdominal distress including gas, bloating and diarrhea should consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). An RDN is qualified to prescribe an elimination diet that can rule out wheat allergies and other food sensitivities.

There are health risks associated with avoiding gluten. Because manufacturers are trying to mimic the original gluten-containing food, GF products are typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium. In addition, eating GF can cause deficiencies in iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium and fiber. Reduced consumption of whole grains is linked to cardiovascular disease. There is no evidence that GF products promote weight loss.

Do this if you are determined to avoid gluten. Buy and cook whole or cracked grains that have been certified to be uncontaminated and gluten-free (e.g. oats, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth or millet). These are part of a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet which also includes copious quantities of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and whole soy. A GF diet isn’t easy to follow and can deprive a person of needed nutrients; thus, it is best to have a dietitian’s guidance if you must do so.

Nancy Teeter, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, is a SaddleBrooke resident. Her objective is to help people reach their health and wellness goals.