What is Gluten?

I know I’m not the only one who freaking loves bread.
It’s chewy and soft, spongy and moist, crunchy on the outside and irresistible on the inside.
So why give up eating bread, or even cut back a little?
There are a few reasons, but the most well known is that bread contains gluten. But what is gluten? And why are more and more people avoiding it like the plague?

Gluten – Grain Glue
Gluten is a protein found in many grains. It is the part of the grain that gives dough its elastic, stretchy quality. Baking with gluten-free flours can be a challenge because they lack this magical ingredient.
Grains that contain gluten include wheat, barley, farro, rye, bulgur, spelt, semolina, pumpernickel, and a few other more obscure varieties.
Oats are a grey area, as some people react to the non-gluten proteins they contain while others do not.

Protein? Isn’t That Good For You?
Most people have heard of Celiac Disease, but the protein gluten (specifically, gliadin) is thought to be a common food sensitivity as well. The controversy around whether this food intolerance exists comes from the fact that there are no good diagnostic tests for it. Gluten intolerance is seen right now as a “diagnosis of exclusion” – aka “we don’t know what’s going on with you so I guess this is what you have”. However, many people are able to self-diagnose by following an elimination diet. Gluten intolerance can show up as any number of symptoms including weight loss or gain, intestinal/ stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, brain fog, food cravings, and skin conditions.

Why Eliminate Gluten?
There are several studies out there showing that gluten causes things like systemic inflammation, gut permeability (bad), and irritation of IBS. The true amount of people with gluten sensitivity is unknown, while the amount of people with these issues is overwhelmingly large. If you’re symptom-free right now, this is still relevant to you – the chances of developing a gluten sensitivity increases with the amount of unvaried grains that you eat. If you eat wheat bread every day for lunch, you are more likely to develop a reaction due to repeated, frequent exposure.

So What to Do?
For me, it was worth eliminating gluten for a few months to see if my symptoms (migraines, joint pain, ezcema, and digestive problems) went away. It was a relatively simple experiment that had amazing results! Eliminating gluten wasn’t a cure-all, but my life-long eczema did go away completely and my stomach pains decreased significantly. Some people simply feel better in general and have more energy after giving up gluten. Others don’t seem to suffer any ill-effects from gluten at all, but even they can benefit from varying the types of grains they eat. Eating the same grains day after day can eventually lead to gluten intolerance, so switching things up can benefit you in the long run. Plus, trying new and different foods is fun! And for those gluten-intolerant folks,  don’t fret – there are plenty of gluten-free grains for you to try out. Rice, quinoa, corn, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, and teff are all naturally gluten free. Just make sure you pay attention to how your body reacts to them, as some people can’t handle gluten-free grains either. Don’t worry, a life without grains isn’t so bad – even if you cut them completely out of your diet, you can still bake delicious healthy treats using coconut, almond, cassava, and other unusual flours!

Gluten-Free the Healthy Way

It is important to remember that something being labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t make it healthy. Gluten-free cookies are still cookies, sorry! So while enjoying treats is just fine, don’t kid yourself into thinking something is healthy just because it’s lacking gluten. Continue reading your food labels or better yet, make your own healthy versions of gluten-free goodies!

Do you eat a gluten-free diet? If so, has it improved your health? Let me know in the comments below!


Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and the above does not substitute for medical advice. If you are experiencing any symptoms, please visit a doctor or registered dietitian!

Published by kelliroseyates

Kelli Yates is a health and nutrition writer, dietetics student, and co-host and creator of The Nutrition Nerds Podcast. In her spare time she teaches the free class Well-Fed Survival: Eating Well After Disaster.

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