Diet MythbustingFood Science

Important Things to Know Before You Consider a Gluten-Free Diet

You become what you eat. A healthy diet and good health go hand in hand. To maintain good health, you need to make an effort to learn everything there is to know about your body. You need to understand how your body reacts to different nutrients.

Understand that the body of different people can react to nutrients derived from foods differently. Something that is healthy for you may be unhealthy for someone else and vice versa. Gluten, a nutrient naturally found in some grains, can be bad for some people. If a person has a gluten intolerance, the protein can cause various digestive problems, such as gassiness, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a family of proteins found in abundance in certain grains, such as barley, wheat, spelt, and rye, and their derivatives, such as brewer’s yeast and malt. Though gluten is a mixture of different types of proteins, it primarily consists of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is responsible for most of the health effects. Gluten has a glue-like consistency. Gluten proteins stick together to form a network. This property makes dough elastic and causes bread to rise when baked. Some surprising sources of gluten include soy sauce and some French fries. It can also hide in certain additives, medications, and hygiene products. Not all grains are rich in gluten. Some gluten-free grains include buckwheat, millet, rice, quinoa, and amaranth. Though oats are naturally gluten-free, they can be contaminated during processing.

Is Gluten Bad?

Gluten is bad for some people. The body of individuals with certain conditions, such as wheat allergy, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity, does not react well to gluten. In these people, gluten can trigger several health problems.

Celiac Disease

It is estimated that around 0.7-1 percent of the global population lives with celiac disease. Celiac disease or coeliac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. The body of individuals with this disorder treats gluten as a foreign invader. When the person eats food containing gluten, the immune system attacks the protein and the lining of the gut, causing severe damage. This damage gives rise to serious health concerns, such as anemia, nutritional deficiencies, and digestive problems. In people with celiac disease, gluten can increase the risk of several other diseases. Some common symptoms of celiac disease include fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, digestive discomfort, and skin rashes. Celiac diseases can be extremely difficult to diagnose. A study estimates that around 80 percent of people with celiac disease do not know that they have a health issue.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Sometimes, people who are not diagnosed with celiac disease exhibit gluten-sensitivity symptoms. This is termed as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It is estimated that around 0.5-13 percent of the population lives with this condition. Though people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity exhibit the same symptoms as individuals with celiac disease, gluten does not cause intestinal damage in them. Many experts believe that non-celiac gluten sensitivity isn’t a real condition. They claim that there can be many other substances that give rise to similar symptoms. In most cases, these other substances, and not gluten, are to be blamed for health issues in people who haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, but think they’re gluten-intolerant.

Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet excludes grains. People with gluten-intolerance are recommended a gluten-free diet. Given the fact that gluten is added to several foods, starting a gluten-free diet can be challenging. For many people diagnosed with gluten intolerance, replacing gluten-rich foods with naturally gluten-free seeds and grains such as corn, arrowroot, and flax can be the way ahead. Some foods that are naturally gluten-free include meat, vegetables, legumes, fruits, eggs, nuts, and tubers. People with gluten-sensitivity must prefer naturally gluten-free foods to processed gluten-free products, as they are usually a poor source of essential nutrients and may contain artificial preservatives, added sugars, and refined grains. Some categories of people who may benefit from a gluten-free diet are:

  • People diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity
  • People with a wheat allergy
  • People with gluten ataxia, a disorder impacting the autoimmune system

For a product to be labeled gluten-free, it must fulfill the following conditions:

  • Should not be derived from a gluten-food (food naturally containing gluten)
  • Should contain less than 20 ppm (part per million) gluten

Proposed Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet

Gluten-free diets are becoming all the rage. Health-freaks who count every calorie that they consume and several health experts around the world swear by a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet:

  • May promote gut health and healthy digestive function
  • Is the key to maintaining good health for people with celiac disease
  • May help with weight loss
  • May alleviate symptoms of schizophrenia and autism

Tips to Avoid Gluten When Eating Out

Many people with gluten intolerance avoid eating out due to the fear of getting exposed to gluten. Dining out, however, does not necessarily have to be out of question for gluten-intolerant people. If you have gluten-intolerance, all you need to do is follow these tips to avoid the risk of accidentally exposing yourself to gluten:

  • Call your preferred restaurant at least a day before your visit. Talk to the chef, explaining them your dietary restrictions.
  • Avoid rush hours.
  • Look for a restaurant with a gluten-free menu.
  • Share your concerns regarding gluten cross-contamination (gluten seeping into your food due to cooking mistakes) with the chef or manager.
  • Before the food is served, remember to ask your server whether it is gluten-free.

Things to Know Before Jumping on the Gluten-Free Bandwagon

For most people, switching to a gluten-free diet is a big decision. Meals prepared in different parts of the world contain grains in some form. Eliminating them from one’s diet takes some doing. Before starting a gluten-free diet, you must talk to a certified dietician and your doctor. It is advisable that you discuss your goals and concerns with these experts. Here are some good-to-know facts for people considering to go gluten-free.

Still Enjoy Grains

Going gluten-free does not necessarily mean you cannot have any grains on your plate. There are several grains that are naturally gluten-free. Some typical examples are millet, buckwheat, and rice. These grains are a healthier alternative to gluten-free foods, such as gluten-free muffins and brownies that are often made from refined grains and are high in sugar. Switching to a gluten-free diet that includes processed gluten-free foods can do more bad than good. Now you know the reason why many people on a gluten-free diet gain weight instead of losing it.

Sneaky Foods with Gluten

Switching to a gluten-free diet will take more than eliminating grains from your diet. Grains are not the only source of gluten. Some surprising foods that contain gluten are:

  • Processed salad dressing and sauces: Many salad dressings and marinades utilize gluten as a thickener. If you are gluten-intolerant, consider preparing your sauces at home. If this is not an option, look for products with a label on the packaging that says gluten-free.
  • Soy: Pure soybeans are naturally gluten-free; however, they are often grown with wheat, which can result in cross-contamination. People with gluten-intolerance must look for certified gluten-free soy products.
  • Malt vinegar: Though several types of vinegar are derived from grains, the distilling process eliminates gluten. Because malt vinegar does not go through the same process, it contains gluten.
  • Flavored coffee: If you are gluten-intolerant, a cup of your favorite flavored coffee every day can make you very sick. Artificial flavors added to coffee are a source of gluten. To steer clear of health complications, stick to unflavored coffee.
  • Pickled products: Almost all preservatives used in pickled products contain gluten. Instead of gorging on processed pickled products, pickle your own veggies at home.
  • Beer: We have some bad news for all you beer lovers with gluten-intolerance out there. Your favorite beer can aggravate your condition. Traditional beer is not gluten-free. Conventional beer is made from a combination of hops and malted barley. Sometimes, wheat is also used in beer making. All these grains naturally contain gluten.

Cross-Contamination Poses a Potent Risk

Cross-contamination occurs when gluten-free food comes in contact with foods containing gluten. People on a gluten-free diet can still accidentally expose themselves to gluten when they consume gluten-free foods that were prepared using the same utensils as foods containing gluten. People diagnosed with gluten-intolerance must use separate utensils, wooden spoons, and chopping boards to prepare their food. To avoid cross-contamination, get new condiments such as butter, jam, and any other item that may have been previously double dipped with gluten-containing utensils. Thoroughly clean appliances after use. Shop groceries from a store with a gluten-free counter. When dining out, look for a restaurant that offers gluten-free options. Ask questions about the preparation process.

Certified Gluten-Free vs. Certified Gluten-Wise

Gluten-wise, gluten-conscious, or gluten-smart products are targeted towards a larger demographic (people who are not gluten-intolerant but choose to eliminate gluten from their diet because of the proposed health benefits). These products may not be strictly gluten-free. A typical example of gluten-wise products is gluten-free food prepared in restaurants. These foods are unlikely to be prepared in a truly gluten-free environment, as there is a high chance of the kitchen staff not properly following the rules.

Learn to Read Labels

Before jumping on the gluten-free diet bandwagon, you need to learn how to read labels. When shopping for foods, remember to check allergen labels. Steer clear of foods with wheat and other allergens. Do not assume anything. Just because no wheat or other grains that naturally contain gluten are listed on the packaging of a product does not mean that it’s gluten-free. Look for products that are clearly marked gluten-free or certified gluten-free. Check for obvious and non-obvious sources of gluten.

Symptoms that You May Need a Gluten-Free Diet

There are 200+ symptoms of gluten intolerance, many of which are also symptoms of other health conditions. Some common symptoms of gluten intolerance are chronic diarrhea/constipation, chronic fatigue, unexplained low bone density, and numbness in hands and feet.

For people with celiac disease, switching to a gluten-free diet is a necessity, not an option. Even small amounts of gluten from grains and other foods can cause an adverse reaction, damaging their intestinal cells. People diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may also require to go gluten-free; however, even if they accidentally consume foods containing gluten, their intestinal cells won’t get damaged. That said, they may experience some symptoms that people with celiac disease have.

Results Will Primarily Depend on Your Food Choices

A gluten-free diet should not be viewed as a passport to success. For most people, the presence or absence of gluten in their food alone is not a determining factor when it comes to maintaining good health. To achieve your goals, it is necessary that you make wise and informed overall choices within your diet. If you want to eliminate grains and products derived from them from your diet, replace them with healthier options, such as fruits, veggies, and other healthy gluten-free foods.

Gluten-Free Processed Foods Can Do More Harm Than Good

Gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthy, at least, not in the case of processed gluten-free foods that are often made with replacement flours that provide little or no nutritional benefits.

Additionally, rice, tapioca, and cornflour used to create the base of gluten-free flour blends tend to be high glycemic, causing blood sugar levels to spike. Even brown rice pasta, which is often used as a healthier alternative to white rice pasta, has very little fiber and is high in sugar. What’s worse, say many experts, is that some gluten-free processed foods contain disgusting food binders such as xanthan gum (made by applying Xanthomonas Campestris, a bacteria that causes black rot in veggies, to a starchy material). Gluten-free processed foods also tend to be more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Many gluten-free processed products are high in empty calories, fat, and sugar. Consuming too much of processed foods can sabotage your dream of having a lean physique. If you have food FOMO (fear of missing out), let us tell you that you do not have to choose between taste and health. Thankfully, there are several healthy and tasty, naturally gluten-free foods to choose from. Some typical examples include veggies, fruits, dairy products, meat, poultry, and beans.

Today’s Wheat is Loaded with Gluten: Fact or Myth?

Many people believe that wheat produced today has more gluten than our ancestor’s wheat. This is not true. A study published by the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry did not find any results suggesting that today’s wheat contains more gluten than before.

It is Important to Talk to a Doctor Before Switching to a Gluten-Free Diet

In a study, only 36 percent of participants said that they’d consider consulting their doctor before eliminating gluten-containing foods from their diet. If you suspect that you are gluten-intolerant, talk to your doctor before going gluten-free. To steer clear of possible health complications and maximize health benefits, speak to your doctor about possible health side effects. Get a celiac disease diagnosis as it will be difficult for your doctor to test for the disease once you go gluten-free. It is important to remember that several symptoms of gluten-intolerance are also associated with other health conditions. If you are experiencing gluten-sensitivity symptoms, avoid speculating anything. To get to the root cause of the problem, it is necessary that you consult a certified physician.

Additionally, many wheat products are fortified with folic acid, vitamins, and minerals. If you decide to go gluten-free, there is a chance that you will miss out on these nutrients. To get these essential nutrients, consider taking supplements (after consulting your doctor).

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Going Gluten-Free

In their eagerness to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, many people do not research what going gluten-free involves. When going gluten-free, half baked knowledge can be dangerous. Without the proper knowledge, you can fall prey to rumors about gluten-free diets making the rounds. Some mistakes that many people on a gluten-free diet commit are:

  • Believing that going gluten-free is a panacea for all your health problems

There is no denying that people with celiac disease and non-gluten sensitivity feel much better after switching to a gluten-free diet. Even healthy people may experience the health benefits of eliminating gluten-containing foods from their diet; however, a gluten-free diet is not a miracle worker. Do not expect it to solve all your health problems. Remember, results can vary from person to person, which is why it is a good idea to consult your physician before going gluten-free to find out whether it is the best option for you in the first place. After switching to a gluten-free diet, visit your physician regularly, enabling the expert to track your results.

  • Having a cheat day

A study found that 25 percent of people diagnosed with celiac disease don’t stick to their diet well enough. If you have celiac disease or are diagnosed with gluten-insensitivity, having a cheat day is a strict NO. Treating yourself to restricted foods even occasionally can lead to health complications.

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