If you’re like most people, you have a love-hate relationship with gluten, and with this month being Celiac awareness month, what better time to talk about this topic? The data consistently show that the number of Americans who have a medically-indicated reason to avoid eating gluten is much lower than many may think.
Many avoid gluten because they genuinely feel better when following a gluten-free diet even though they do not have celiac disease (an autoimmune condition for which a strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment option). While others follow a GF-diet because they believe eating gluten-containing foods like wheat is unhealthy, yet they feel fine if they slip up and eat some.
If you identify with the first group, you may be surprised to learn the reasons why you might feel better have nothing to do with the gluten itself. Below are four other explanations.
What is gluten and where is it found? Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten’s role is to help foods maintain their shape by acting like a “glue” to hold foods together. Gluten can be found in many foods, some obvious, and some that you would not expect.
Wheat is commonly found in:
· Baked goods
· Salad dressings
Barley is commonly found in:
· Brewer’s yeast
· Malt (malted barley flour, malted milk, and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar)
Rye is commonly found in:
· Rye bread (like pumpernickel)
· Rye beer
Triticale is a newer grain and is being incorporated into many every-day foods. It can be found in products like:
Oats are a naturally gluten-free food that offers many nutritional benefits. If you decide to work oats into your diet, it is recommended by the Celiac Disease Foundation to consume only oats labeled gluten-free. Oats without this label may be processed in a facility where gluten-containing foods are being processed which means there is a chance for cross-contact. If you’d like more information on oats and gluten, click to view a statement released by the NASSCD. https://celiac.org/blog/2016/04/nasscd-releases-summary-statement-on-oats/
1. You may be allergic to a protein other than gluten
Although less common than celiac disease, allergic-type reactions to wheat do occur. These are triggered by wheat-specific proteins other than gluten. A wheat allergy functions in the same way as any other allergy in the body. One’s body mistakes the wheat protein as “foreign” and dangerous which leads to an allergic response. Only around half of a percent of American adults are affected by a wheat allergy. The difference between those with celiac disease and those with a wheat or other similar allergy is that people with these other conditions do not have to follow a gluten-free diet, they just have to follow a strict wheat-free diet. Other gluten-containing grains such as rye and barley should not trigger symptoms. For more tips for avoiding food allergens check out F.A.R.E. https://www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/tips-avoid-allergen.pdf
2. You may be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
For those with IBS, having too much insoluble fiber (such as from a large salad, nuts, seeds, and All-Bran cereals) at one time can trigger diarrhea, cramping, or immediate need to use the bathroom. Wheat grains also contain an insoluble-rich protective layer called the “bran.” This can also trigger the same unpleasant effects of IBS. Since this reaction is not due to the gluten, people with IBS who react negatively to whole-wheat foods may find that white flour-based foods do not trigger symptoms. This means there is no need to be fully gluten-free if the issue is just with the bran.
3. Ever hear of a Fructan? You may have a sensitivity and not realize it.
All too often, “gluten” is used interchangeably with “wheat,” when really, wheat is made up of many other nutrients. A wheat grain is composed of some fat, outer layer (bran) which contains fiber, proteins (one of which is gluten), and various carbohydrates. Through research, we know that most of the people that experience GI upset in response to consuming wheat are actually reacting to one of the carbohydrates called a Fructan. Fructans are fiber that, like many others, humans lack the enzymes necessary to break down and absorb fully. This can result in gas, bloating, pain etc. Fructans are found in many other foods besides wheat, like asparagus, leeks, garlic, onions, and jicama.
At first, this may sound like I am telling you to avoid Fructans, but quite the opposite. Objectively, they are good for us. Fructans are used by our gut bacteria for fuel which results in many other health benefits. But, for those with IBS or a fructan-sensitivity, it can lead to a very uncomfortable day. You might be thinking, “do I need to follow a gluten-free diet if this is me?” The answer is no. Some gluten-containing foods are low in fructans, so you may still be able to enjoy some of the foods you love
4. Unexpected benefits of a gluten-free diet – more whole, unprocessed foods
The restrictions imposed by a gluten-free diet will force one to eliminate many of the unhealthy factors in the typical American diet. When eating out, people may order more salads as pasta and sandwiches quickly become not an option, snacks may shift to more high-fiber choices like nuts, fruits, and veggies compared to chips, pretzels, and cookies. Desserts becomes a rare treat, if at all. These little changes can make drastic changes in the quality of one’s diet. Yes, there are highly processed and poor-quality gluten-free foods, so this isn’t a free pass to eat anything labeled “gluten-free,” you will still have to check labels.
So, be aware that the improvements in energy, weight-loss, and a decrease in appetite may be attributed to you improving the quality of your diet, rather than the removal of gluten.
New to a gluten-free diet? Check out this article in this month’s edition of Food & Nutrition
If you suspect you may have celiac or one of the above-mentioned issues, contact your primary Physician or Registered Dietitian for more information.
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