What is Gluten? Health Benefits, Risks, and Gluten-free Diet


Gluten-free became the new buzzword that hit the health-conscious world. Health and fitness enthusiasts are constantly in search of foods that are labeled as gluten-free.

Exactly what is gluten? Is going gluten-free healthy, or is it just a myth or a trick to attract new customers and increase sales?

Like these, the series of questions about this trendy obsession may never end. That’s why we consolidated all vital information about gluten, its benefits, gluten-free diet, why gluten is bad, what does gluten-free means, problems with gluten, and a lot more.

Here are the answers to your questions and everything you need to know about gluten.

What is Gluten?

Gluten, which is formally known as prolamins, is naturally found in certain cereals and grains. It binds the food together, which is why a ball of dough doesn’t get ripped while tossing and stretching.

Wheat, barley, rye, semolina, wheat berries, emmer, triticale (combination of wheat and rye), etc., are all grains that contain gluten. Seitan (vegan high protein food) or wheat gluten is also sold as gluten.

Health Benefits of Gluten

Is gluten bad for you? Even though the current fad is for gluten-free food and the food brands use this as their main selling strategy, there are no concrete studies that prove gluten is unhealthy. 

In studies, it was also found that, in people having a diet with a higher percentage of whole grains, including wheat, there was a significant decrease in heart disease and stroke rates compared to those who consumed lesser quantities.

All these studies were carried out in people without celiac disease. Non-celiac individuals avoiding gluten were at higher risk of developing heart diseases. 

Bifidobacteria, normally found in a healthy human gut, get stimulated from the prebiotic carbohydrate found in wheat bran. Changes in their amount result in gastrointestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, and even irritable bowel syndrome. 

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Problems Due to Gluten

problems due to gluten

You may be inquisitive about what gluten does to your body. People often get puzzled with questions like what are the effects of gluten on the body, what is gluten-free, who should avoid gluten, why is gluten bad, what are the problems with gluten, etc.

The majority of the population can tolerate gluten without any adverse effects, barring a few individuals with certain health conditions such as gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, wheat allergy, etc

The main issue with gluten is that it can cause serious side effects in certain individuals wherein their body senses it as a toxin, causing their immune cells to overreact and mistakenly attack it. The side effects can range from bloating, mild fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, severe intestinal damage, malnutrition, and unintentional weight loss, as seen in autoimmune disorder (celiac disease).

Celiac Disease

Studies have shown that about one percent of the population has celiac disease. It is the most severe type of gluten intolerance.

Due to this autoimmune disorder, the immune system attacks the gluten and the lining of the gut as well. This damages the gut wall causing the nutrient deficiency, anemia, severe digestive issues, and increased risk of many other ailments.

The common symptoms of celiac disease are:

  • Bloating
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rashes
  • Constipation
  • Depression 
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Foul-smelling feces

Individuals with celiac disease are at a higher risk of osteoporosis, anemia (due to malabsorption of calcium and iron) infertility, nerve disorders, and even cancer in rare cases. A gluten-free diet is the best possible way to reverse the damage. Care should be taken to ensure that adequate nutrients are obtained from gluten-free alternatives.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

It is a condition in which people don’t test positive for celiac disease but react negatively to gluten. It is also referred to as gluten-sensitive enteropathy (GSE).

Researchers have found that 0.5 -13% of the population may be affected by this. The symptoms include:

The studies have been inconclusive regarding this condition as some experts believe some other substances can also cause these adverse effects. As a result, people who think they are gluten intolerant may develop these symptoms due to other underlying causes.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

It is a common digestive disorder that can be managed by diet, lifestyle changes, and stress management techniques. The main symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation or both

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Wheat Allergy

0.2-1% of the population has this allergy. Wheat allergy may cause digestive issues after gluten consumption. It may be caused by an allergy to one or more of the proteins (gluten, albumin, globulin, gliadin) found in wheat. Positive immunoglobulin E blood tests can diagnose it. 

There are different varieties of wheat that contain wheat gluten. They are:

  • Durum (Pasta wheat)
  • Kamut (Khorasan wheat)
  • Emmer (Hulled wheat)
  • Einkorn (Triticum boeoticum or Triticum monococcum)
  • Spelt (Dinkel wheat)

Enriched flour (added vitamins and minerals), graham flour, self-rising flour, and semolina are different names of wheat flour that contain gluten. People with a wheat allergy should stay away from food items that have wheat, including the wheat varieties mentioned above.

Wheat allergy symptoms may include swelling or itching of the mouth or throat, hives, itchy eyes, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and anaphylaxis. This condition is mostly seen in children and may alleviate as they grow older.

Studies have also shown that a gluten-free diet may aid some individuals with schizophrenia, autism, and gluten ataxia.

Gluten Ataxia

It is an autoimmune disorder affecting certain nerve tissues and causing problems with muscle control and voluntary muscle movements.

Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH)

It is caused due to the autoimmune response of the body. The red, itchy skin rash that may produce blisters and bumps are the main signs of this chronic skin condition. People with celiac disease may have DH.

Gluten Intolerance

The most typical indication of gluten intolerance is digestive discomfort which may cause anemia and troubles in gaining weight. People having digestive discomfort should make sure that they ask their doctor to check for celiac disease. 

Two main options for finding this issue are:

Blood test – a common test to screen antibodies (tTG- IgA test) is conducted. If found positive, a tissue biopsy may also be recommended by the doctor to confirm the issue. 

Biopsy of the small intestine – a small tissue sample of the small intestine is analyzed in the lab for damages. 

If the person is not having celiac disease and still suffering from digestive discomfort, a gluten-free diet as recommended by the doctor should be practiced for a few weeks to check if the symptoms are improving.

You may be wondering what a gluten-free diet is, what foods to avoid, and what to include. Don’t worry; you can find more about the gluten-free diet later on this blog, so keep reading. 

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They are short-chained carbohydrates found in foods, including wheat. Studies have shown that many people are unable to digest this properly.

In many cases, people with gluten sensitivity are actually sensitive to FODMAPs and not to gluten. A low FODMAP diet as recommended by the doctor for people with IBS helps in such cases. Care should be taken that people follow the diet with the help of a professional. 

Gluten-free Diet

Gluten free diet

Now that you know what gluten is, who should avoid gluten, what gluten tolerance is, and why gluten is bad in some people, you may be searching for a gluten-free diet or looking for what foods are gluten-free. We have gathered the necessary information for you. Scroll down and pore over.

AWheat, spelt, rye, barley, bread, pasta, cereals, beer, cakes, cookies, pastries, and many processed foods rich in gluten should be avoided.

People should make sure they have healthy, wholesome foods that are naturally gluten-free. Rice, oats, quinoa, flax, millets, tapioca, buckwheat, arrowroot, etc., are some of the grains and seeds that are naturally gluten-free. Whole foods like meat, seafood, eggs, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, tubers, fats such as oil and butter are also free of gluten.

A diet that removes all foods containing or contaminated with gluten is essential for a gluten-free diet. Since gluten-containing grains have fiber and nutrients such as vitamin B, magnesium, and iron, care should be taken to include these in your diet while going for gluten-free options.

Whole grains such as quinoa, brown, black, or red rice, buckwheat, millets, corn, sorghum, teff, and gluten-free oats are good options while opting for a gluten-free diet. 

Relying on processed gluten-free foods is not a good option since they are high in calories, sugar-saturated fats, and sodium. Since such processed foods are made with unfortified rice, tapioca, corn, or potato flour, the nutrient quality and quantity will be low.

Since 2013, the gluten-free food industry has grown exponentially (136%). Most people have a misconception that gluten-free foods are a healthier option, and the studies have shown that the biggest purchasers of gluten-free products are those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

There is no specific benefit in following a gluten-free diet for a normal person who is not gluten intolerant.

The studies have also shown that patients with celiac disease are at an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome when they change to a gluten-free diet. It can be partly due to the improved intestinal absorption and the low nutritive value of processed gluten-free foods containing refined sugars and saturated fats with a higher glycemic index.

A healthy mix of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy proteins, and oils with adequate water intake and exercise is the key to a healthy lifestyle for gluten intolerant people.

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