While the gluten-free diet is medically necessary or recommended for some individuals, others are going gluten-free for purported general health benefits. Let’s take a look at what exactly gluten is, who should eat a gluten-free diet, and if a gluten-free diet is always a healthy lifestyle choice.
What is Gluten and Where Can It Be Found?
Gluten is a type of storage protein found in cereal grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, as well as in hybrids and related species. It is present in all food products derived from these grains and known for giving food a chewy, elastic texture. Gluten is commonly found in bread, pastries, pasta, pizza, noodles, cereal, crackers, sauces and gravies, brewer’s yeast, tortillas, beer, and any food that contains wheat flour.
Who Should Avoid Eating Gluten?
A gluten-free diet is a medical treatment, often an essential one, for gluten-related autoimmune conditions, the most common of which is celiac disease. Celiac disease is characterized by inflammation of the internal organs, most notably of the small intestines, when gluten is ingested. This inflammatory response causes damage to the small intestines which can, over time, impact the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Gluten can also trigger the autoimmune conditions dermatitis herpetiformis and gluten ataxia. Dermatitis herpetiformis causes skin blistering accompanied by a burning and itching sensation. It is sometimes referred to as “celiac disease of the skin.” Gluten ataxia affects the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls for complex movements and coordination. It can cause issues with muscle movements and muscle control.
Avoiding gluten is also an effective treatment for a common gluten-related condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or simply gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. The symptoms improve when gluten is omitted from the diet.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet Beneficial for Everyone?
Many people who do not have a gluten-related autoimmune condition or sensitivity are also choosing to avoid gluten for a variety of claimed benefits, including weight loss, reduced bloating, increased energy, and overall improved health. While there is emerging evidence that avoiding gluten may help alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, the evidence for other benefits of going gluten-free is lacking or inconclusive.
Gluten is not essential for humans and it is possible to eat a healthy diet without it. However, medical professionals have raised concerns that many people who are choosing to go gluten-free do not adequately replace the nutrients they would have otherwise received from gluten-containing foods. When following a gluten-free diet, it is very important that you continue to get enough fibre, vitamins, and other macro and micronutrients.
The gluten-free diet itself isn’t just a passing fad, as it is an effective treatment for gluten-related health conditions. In cases where it isn’t medically necessary, however, it likely isn’t necessary for a healthy lifestyle either. Additionally, buying or preparing gluten-free food is typically more expensive, and such foods may be higher in fat and sugar content as well.
The best thing you can do if you think you might benefit from cutting gluten out of your diet, whether due to a medical condition or because you want to eat healthier, is to ask your doctor for their advice. At the end of the day, getting all of the necessary nutrients and avoiding foods that are harmful to your health is the best type of diet to choose.