Everyone’s allergic to something. Pollen, peanuts, cats, dairy, shrimp, and certain medications are all totally normal allergens to a lot of people. There’s a chance you are allergic to at least one of the mentioned allergens. However, some are actually allergic to a compound that is, unfortunately, found in a lot of staple foods called gluten.
Gluten is a mixture of two proteins and is commonly found in cereal grains and wheat-based products. This compound is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. This protein causes illnesses and digestive issues to those mainly with celiac disease.
Just like regular allergens, the best way to avoid encountering gluten is to avoid eating foods that contain it in some form or another. The problem with that is, gluten is literally almost in every food based on cereal and wheat. If you’re like most people, avoiding gluten would most likely seem like you’re going on a hunger strike.
Thankfully, dietitians have been working on ways to make avoiding gluten practical and manageable by means of having patients (and the curious) live with a gluten-free diet.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in spelt, rye, barley, and wheat. It got its name from its elastic and sticky property resembling that of glue when flour is mixed with water. It’s the compound responsible for giving your favorite breads and pastries that chewy and satisfying texture.
What is a Gluten-free diet?
If you’ve been around social media for a few years (well, who isn’t?), there’s a chance you’ve seen or heard about the term gluten-free or gluten-free diet. Right now, it’s one of the most popular diets in the US with many celebrities and athletes vouching for the diet’s benefits when it comes to weight loss and improved fitness and performance.
A gluten-free diet is, in the simplest definition, a diet that reduces or prevents someone from consuming foods with the protein gluten. This diet is prescribed mainly for people with celiac disease, a condition that affects 1% of the US population and causes small intestine damage by triggering the body’s immune system and makes it an autoimmune disease. If not treated, long-term effects could cause prevent your body from absorbing nutrients from food (1). It could also increase the risk of many harmful diseases as well as cause a plethora of digestive issues.
Those with celiac disease experience severe stomach pain, constipation, rashes, bloating, unexplained weight loss, tiredness, and depression.
Other diseases that warrants adoption of a gluten-free diet include non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition that causes similar symptoms to celiac disease such as bloating, diarrhea, rashes, and brain fog without the small intestine damage; gluten ataxia, an autoimmune disease that targets the nerve tissues and wreaks havoc on muscle control and movement; and wheat allergy, a condition where the body thinks gluten is a threat and attacks the compound while also giving breathing problems and congestion to the host (2).
The aim of a gluten-free diet is to prevent any symptoms of gluten sensitivity or intolerance to rise. However, even people who don’t have any form of gluten sensitivity are looking at the diet from a general health and weight loss perspective.
How does a gluten-free diet work?
The idea behind a gluten-free diet consists mainly of planning your meals around food products that do not make use of gluten and/or its derivatives. Whether as part of the main ingredients of certain foods or as a cooking/baking accessory (such as flour for dusting), a gluten-free diet advocates for the total avoidance of gluten in all known forms.
How do I know if gluten is bad for me?
Simply having digestive issues is not enough to determine gluten sensitivity or that you will need to go on a gluten-free diet. Sometimes people have digestion issues or other illnesses due to other, more obvious causes such as poor eating habits, excessive smoking or drinking, lack of physical activity, and less than ideal sleeping habits. However, if you strongly suspect gluten is the root of some of your problems, you can test for it in two ways:
- Blood test. You may choose to have a tTG-IgA test, a procedure that analyzes for antibodies that incorrectly interacts with gluten.
- Small intestine biopsy. If you have a positive result, you will likely need a small intestine biopsy, a surgical procedure that removes a small portion of your small intestine to check for damage.
Generally speaking, it’s best to always get tested first before going on a gluten-free diet as the test will help determine if you have an actual disease or not. You can also try the diet for a few weeks and see if symptoms improve. Then, you can gradually reintroduce gluten in your diet to check if any of the symptoms reappear.
Benefits of the Gluten-free diet
Proponents of the diet is not lacking and other than relief of symptoms, many attest their positive wellbeing to adopting a gluten-free diet. Here are some of its many benefits.
For the most part, the gluten-free diet is prescribed to those with celiac disease and symptoms that mimic symptoms of having celiac disease. So, it goes without saying that going gluten-free will improve symptoms and sometimes even prevent them from appearing again. Most notably, going gluten-free has been shown to reduce stomach pains and diarrhea frequency as well as nausea (3).
Reduces chronic inflammation
People with celiac disease are afflicted with chronic inflammation, a condition where the body’s natural tendency to fight infection lasts for too long and increases risks to almost every disease known to man (4). Going gluten-free can help alleviate symptoms of chronic inflammation, particularly reducing antibody levels as well as help treat gut damage caused by gluten-related inflammation.
Helps with weight loss
A lot of industrially processed food is laced with gluten whether as part of the ingredients or for mechanical purposes. Industrially processed foods are also among the major contributors to obesity, particularly due to how addictive and habit forming some are (link). With a gluten-free diet, the food selection discriminates against processed food that relies on gluten and prioritizes the consumption of food that is whole and, as much as possible, least processed.
Gives you higher energy levels
People afflicted with celiac disease often have symptoms of chronic fatigue and even experience a condition called “brain fog.” These symptoms could be caused by inadequate nutrient absorption brought on by gluten intolerance. As such, iron deficiency is common with those diagnosed with celiac disease (1).
Following a gluten-free diet could help fix the way your body absorbs nutrients which can lead to optimized energy levels and better focus.
Teaches you to understand food labels
Food labeling has been required by the FDA for decades now and yet it’s surprising that so few comprehend what they mean. Going gluten-free will make you invest a bit of time into researching what terms in food labels mean and whether they fit your diet or not. Making you more conscious of your food choices allows you to not just pick gluten-free foods better, but also enable you to look at processed food from a “healthy food first” perspective.
What you can and can’t eat on a Gluten-free diet
- Fruits and vegetables. These are all allowed in a gluten-free diet as they don’t contain any form of gluten in their natural states. You might want to keep investing on fruits and vegetables that give the best bang for your buck aka ones that have the most number of nutrients per serving like berries, broccoli, kale, apples, spinach, and avocado.
- Beans, seeds, and nuts. Even though these can be sources of gluten, in their natural state (as in raw, unprocessed form) they don’t possess the type of protein that forms gluten.
- Eggs and dairy products. The good thing about dairy products is not only are they nutritious, but they’re also easy to eat in their natural form. Eggs, in particular, are among the healthiest foods on the planet and those with celiac disease, people suffering from nutrient inadequacy, will benefit greatly from eating them. The only ones who should some dairy products like milk and cheese are those with lactose intolerance.
- Meat, fish, poultry. There’s no real limit on meat, fish, and poultry so long as you keep the portions within a good range. Anything in excess can still contribute to weight gain as well as some digestive symptoms resembling that of gluten sensitivity.
- Alternative grains and starches. We bet you thought you couldn’t eat any grain or starch. You’d be surprised at the number of gluten-free alternatives under this category. Some of them include amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn and cornmeal, flax, flours with a gluten-free label (rice, potato, bean, soy, corn), millet, quinoa, sorghum, and tapioca.
Wheat, barley, rye, some oats, and triticale. Oats on their own are gluten-free however they may be contaminated during processing as they’re usually worked together with wheat, barley, or rye. Oats with a gluten-free label are good, but it’s best to avoid them if you want to play it safe especially if you have celiac disease.
For wheat, you should keep an eye on the following varieties like durum, einkorn, spelt, and kamut. You should also avoid food with enriched flour, farina, graham flour, and semolina as these are all milled or processed wheat.
Common foods with gluten
You would do best to avoid the following foods if you want to be as gluten-free as possible.
- Cakes and pies
- Beer, stout, porter
- French fries
- Hot dogs
- Some processed meats
- Salad dressings
- Soup mixes
- Vegetables in sauce
These are only some of the common foods with gluten or usually have ingredients with gluten. Some medications and supplements may also have gluten in some form, so it would be best to ask your doctor or the supplement seller if their product is gluten-free prior to purchasing.
Tips on improving and maintaining a gluten-free diet
The important part of maintaining a gluten-free diet is to make sure you separate anything with gluten from foods without gluten. Cross contamination is the only enemy you have apart from self-discipline and to prevent cross-contamination, do the following:
- Store gluten-free and gluten-containing foods in different locations. Those with gluten are preferably labeled and sealed.
- Make sure your cooking area is clean and free from possible gluten contaminants like flour or starch. Bakeries, in particular, should be more vigilant when it comes to selling gluten-free products.
- Wash eating utensils and dishes thoroughly especially if the food they were used on contained gluten.
- Analyze restaurant menus and check if they have gluten-free options. They often do, but the problem is if they have more than a handful of choices for you. To prevent awkward moments of silence, it’s best if you check the menus online or ahead of time.
- Tell the people around you that you are on a gluten-free diet. Sometimes, they may buy or cook you food with gluten without them knowing. If you do tell them, don’t be so demanding of gluten-free food. Just ask them if they can accommodate your needs and if not, you can just bring your own food.
Going on a gluten-free diet, as with any diet, requires some major changes in food choices and lifestyle. If you’re always mindful of what you eat, and form healthy habits, staying gluten-free would never be difficult.