What Is Gluten—and Why Does it Have Such a Bad Rap?

gluten free bread

Gluten-free eating has become a widely adopted dietary trend in the past decade, with gluten-free foods appearing on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus everywhere. Gluten is considered enemy number one of optimal gut health. But what is gluten, and why are so many people determined to avoid it? Let’s take a closer look.


What is gluten, anyway?

Gluten is a term for the naturally occurring proteins found in many grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten helps provide structure and strength to foods (for example, the shape and spongy quality of bread). Gluten is commonly found in bread, pasta, crackers, and cereal, but can also be present in many unexpected sources such as salad dressings, soy sauce, processed/flavored deli meat, meat substitutes, and beer.


What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder where consumption of gluten causes damage to the small intestine. This damage disrupts the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. Left untreated, celiac disease can have significant repercussions, potentially leading to other serious autoimmune disorders and neurological conditions. It’s estimated that one in 100 people worldwide are affected by celiac disease, which is hereditary and can develop at any age.


The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict adherence to a gluten free diet. Even trace amounts of gluten—such as ingesting a few breadcrumbs, or eating presumed gluten-free food that is cross contaminated through processing—can be harmful to a person with celiac disease. Therefore, celiac sufferers need to be highly vigilant with their food choices.


It’s important to understand the difference between celiac disease and non-celiac gluten-sensitivity (also referred to as gluten sensitivity or intolerance). Most likely, a lot more than one out of 100 hundred people you know have either experimented with or adopted a gluten-free diet. And most likely, they do not all have celiac disease. These people may have a gluten sensitivity, wherein they experience many of the common symptoms of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is considered less severe than celiac disease, however it can still be an extremely problematic condition.


What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

There are numerous physiological and psychological symptoms of celiac disease, which can range from uncomfortable to debilitating. Symptoms of celiac disease can include:


  • Abdominal bloating or gas
  • Constipation/diarrhea
  • Chronic fatigue
  • “Foggy” head
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Joint pain
  • Itchy skin rash
  • Tingling numbness

Many people with celiac disease might not have symptoms at all, however they will still experience intestinal damage from ingesting gluten.


Can I get tested for celiac disease?

Diagnosis of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be difficult, because the symptoms are also common in a number of other conditions. A blood test is the first step in screening for celiac disease. If a blood test indicates that the disease is present, a biopsy of intestinal tissue is taken to confirm the diagnosis. The biopsy will show definitively whether or not damage to the intestine has occurred, which clearly indicates celiac disease.


Determining non-celiac gluten sensitivity is much trickier, as the blood and biopsy tests that indicate celiac disease will be negative. There are a number of self-administered genetic tests available online, but the validity of these tests is controversial. The most accurate method to determine gluten sensitivity is through a controlled elimination diet. If you experience symptoms that improve with the exclusion of gluten from your diet, it is likely that you have a sensitivity to gluten.


If you experience the symptoms of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consult with a gastroenterologist, who can perform any necessary tests and advise the best approach to an elimination diet in order to clearly identify any food intolerances.


The Good News: Gluten Free Foods You’ll Love

Going gluten free takes some getting used to. You’ll need to pay close attention to ingredient labels, and be cautious and inquisitive (sometimes termed “high maintenance”) when eating out. But don’t despair. While celiac sufferers once struggled to enjoy food-fueled social occasions, gluten-free foods and even entire gluten-free menus are now commonplace. And gluten-free foods do not need to be bland or boring; in fact, many of the foods you know and love are naturally gluten free, including:


  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat, poultry, fish, and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (milk, plain yogurt, butter)
  • Grains such as quinoa and rice
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts
  • Chia seeds

Here are a few ideas for great-tasting gluten-free snacks:

  • Corn tortilla chips with salsa or guacamole
  • Rice crackers with hummus or cheese
  • Apples or rice cakes with nut butter
  • Fruit salad
  • Frozen berries or grapes
  • Baked sweet potato fries
  • Kale chips
  • Popcorn
  • Dark chocolate almonds
  • Foods made gluten-free (for example, gluten-free pretzels)

When looking for gluten-free foods to fuel your diet, keep in mind:

  • Beware of hidden gluten, such as in many store-bought sauces and salad dressings. Use the Whiskware Dressing Shaker to make your own dressing and control the ingredients.
  • Try creative substitutes, such as spiralized zucchini “noodles” in place of traditional pasta.
  • Gluten-free alternatives exist for many foods that normally contain gluten. These items can vary greatly in flavor, texture, and taste. Don’t give up hope if your first experience with gluten-free bread results in a pile of crumbs, or if your gluten-free pasta turns to tasteless mush. Try a few different brands and you’ll soon find there are plenty of delicious options out there.

What are your favorite gluten-free snacks? We’re always hungry for new ideas, so share yours in the comments below.

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