by Cristin Wipfler, MPH, RDN - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Health Coach
Gluten free diets have certainly gained popularity over the past few years. This is in part due to the increased awareness of gluten sensitivity and other gluten-related conditions, as well as new focus being given to understanding gluten’s overall health footprint. As with most things in the health world, there are arguments supporting any viewpoint creating a lot of noise and confusion around the topic.
So here’s a snapshot of what gluten is, how it is used (or not used) by the body, who should avoid gluten, and how to make the shift to gluten free a smooth transition. My hope is that this helps cut out the noise so that you can go into your dietary decision regarding gluten with knowledge and confidence.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein, found in most grains, that is responsible for the chewy and soft texture of gluten-containing foods, such as breads, cereals, pastas, and pastries. These proteins are activated when heated to create an elastic network that traps gas and stretches, which contributes to the rising of gluten containing foods, as well as maintaining an optimal moisture level.These culinary benefits of improved texture and moisture maintenance are why gluten is often added to processed foods.
By nature, gluten is very difficult for the human digestive system to break down and utilize for protein. When these tightly bound proteins do not get broken down properly, the immune system sees them as an invader to the body, which sends it into attack mode, leading to inflammation. This inflammation upsets the environment of the gut (the microbiome) which can lead to a variety of health conditions.
Your digestive system is very intricately designed to allow for the most efficient transfer of nutrients throughout the body. There are tight junctions (connections) throughout, which allow nutrients to cross from the gastrointestinal system into your blood to circulate. The junctions are critical to maintaining the health of the gut.
When the proteins of gluten get into the gut they can cause those tight junctions to open up too much, creating a bigger space for those proteins to pass through. This is called leaky gut because the gluten proteins leak through, as well as other harmful substances that are supposed to be kept out of systemic circulation. Having all of these unfamiliar substances in the bloodstream puts the immune system on high alert, which causes an inflammatory response.
Who should avoid gluten?
There is no nutritional benefit to gluten, so removing it from your diet will not be nutritionally compromising. For those with celiac disease, it is imperative to fully remove gluten to avoid harmful reactions and to allow other nutrients to properly absorb.
Without a diagnosis of celiac, you may have an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity to gluten if you notice some of these side effects when consuming gluten-containing products: digestive issues (bloating, constipation, diarrhea, pain), skin sensitivities (rashes, acne), or brain fog, fatigue, anxiety or poor focus.This list is not comprehensive, but includes several of the most common symptoms I have seen in my practice.
How to make the shift into gluten-free
Embracing a gluten free diet is becoming easier and easier with a wide variety of gluten free options now available. A word of caution: gluten free does not equal healthy. A gluten free cookie is still a cookie! To make the healthiest transition into a gluten free lifestyle, aim for incorporating as many whole foods as possible, which are naturally gluten free and do not contain the additives of processed foods.
There are several wonderful resources online to find delicious (and simple!) gluten free recipes. Do a little bit of playing and find some that you and your family would be excited to try.
Lastly, embrace the change with a positive mindset. Instead of looking at what you are no longer going to eat (breaking up is hard to do!), put the emphasis on the new foods you will introduce, the fun of experimenting, and how much better you can feel with this dietary shift.