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Posted on 05/28/2018 in Gluten Free Blogs

Is Gluten the Villain?

Is Gluten the Villain?

This protein found in many common foods may not be as bad as it’s made out to be

Gluten has recently been a subject of debate worldwide, for being incriminated in various health disorders and diseases ranging from simple digestive issues and weight gain, to cancer and autoimmune disorders. Food sans gluten is supposedly a cure for most of your health woes. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of gluten.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the main storage protein of wheat grains. The word gluten is derived from the Latin word for ‘glue’ because it has glue-like property of wet dough. It is the gluten which makes the dough elastic and gives bread the ability to rise when baked. Hence, it is commonly used as an additive in processed foods for improved texture, moisture retention and flavour.

Gluten is a complex mixture of hundreds of proteins, mainly gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is responsible for most of the negative health effects. It is commonly found in grains like wheat, rye, oats and barley.

Foods high in gluten

The most common sources of gluten in the diet are wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, bread, pasta, cereals, beer, cakes, pizza, cookies and pastries.

Wheat is also added to all sorts of processed foods. If you want to avoid it, then check food labels for gluten content.

Naturally gluten-free

If at all you need to avoid gluten, it’s better to choose foods that are naturally gluten-free, rather than processed gluten-free products.

Grains and seeds: Arrowroot, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, rice, quinoa, flax, millet, sorghum and tapioca.
Whole foods: Meat, fish and seafood, dairy products, eggs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, tubers, and fats such as oils and butter.

Is gluten-free healthy?

More and more people worldwide are adopting gluten-free diets not because they have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity but simply because they regard gluten-free diet to be healthy. However, some research has shown that gluten-free products contain more calories than gluten-containing foods. Gluten-free breads have more lipids and saturated fat than normal gluten breads. Moreover, foods with gluten contain up to three times more protein than their gluten-free counterparts. Gluten-free products tend to be low in nutrients and fibre. They often have added sugar and fats to make them more palatable.

Research has shown that people following long-term gluten-free diets had lower intake of fibre, folate, niacin, B12, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese and selenium. Another study found people consume significantly more carbohydrates when following a gluten-free regimen.

But for those who are diagnosed with celiac disease, they have to abstain from gluten-containing foods for their entire life. And for those who are suffering from gluten sensitivity can eliminate gluten-rich foods for four-six months from their diet and reintroduce one food at a time to check for adverse reactions and their severity, and plan their diet based on that.

Weight loss and gluten

Proponents of the gluten-free way of eating claim that it can assist weight loss. Many people who skip gluten end up not eating carbohydrates intentionally or even unintentionally. This weight loss is often due to cutting out an entire food group (such as breads and cereals). That means they’re eating fewer calories, which naturally leads to weight loss. It’s not because they’ve cut out gluten. However, if you are just replacing gluten-containing grains with their gluten-free counterparts, you may not see any weight loss. You may even gain weight if you consume more calories thinking that gluten-free products are healthy so you can binge on other things.

Does gluten cause harm?

Most people have no problems with gluten. However, for some people it can cause major health issues such as:

Celiac disease: Historically, gluten was thought to pose more problems only for one-two per cent of the population who suffer from autoimmune celiac disease. It is the most severe form of gluten intolerance where the body treats gluten as a foreign invader. While attacking the gluten, the body damages the lining of the gut wall, causing nutrient deficiencies, anaemia, weight loss and severe digestive issues such as chronic constipation, diarrhoea and bloating. The cornerstone of treatment is a lifetime of strict gluten-free diet.

Wheat allergy: For about one per cent of the population, a wheat allergy may be causing digestive issues after consuming gluten. With food allergies, the body triggers an attack against the problem food, resulting in immediate symptoms such as itching, swelling and hives. For many, more severe symptoms occur such as trouble in breathing and swallowing, a drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness. People with food allergies must avoid the offending foods, even miniscule amounts. A past exposure may have been mild, but future contact with the allergen can result in a stronger and potentially life-threatening, reaction.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (also known as gluten sensitivity) is neither an allergic nor an autoimmune response. The diagnosis is made when a patient reacts negatively to gluten. The symptoms often overlap with those of celiac disease. While symptoms negatively affect quality of life, the intestines are not damaged. The symptoms include stomach pain, bloating, heartburn, joint pains, headache and migraine, skin rashes, fatigue and insomnia.

However, some experts believe this isn’t a real condition. They think the adverse effects are imaginary or caused by substances other than gluten.

Hena Nafis is a consultant nutritionist and the owner of nutrition and lifestyle clinic Nutrience


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