What is gluten? Does a gluten-free diet improve your health?
Author : Amal Rahiman
Gluten-free is a word (or two!) that has been tossed around a lot these days. Supermarkets have a gluten-free aisle, gluten-free restaurants are popping up, and entire recipe books are dedicated to meals completely gluten-free.
But is being gluten-free really healthy? Or is it simply a fad? Let’s find out!
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in most grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten in itself provides no significant nutrients to the body, but the foods that have gluten are definitely nutrient rich. It is also found in processed foods such as bread, pasta, and cereals.
In fact, you can even find gluten in cosmetic products, medications, supplements, and even ice cream (making avoiding gluten a tough feat).
Who should avoid gluten?
A small portion of our population (about 1% of the total population) suffers from celiac disease – a disease in which the body attacks the small intestine due to the consumption of gluten. Gluten causes inflammation of the intestinal walls, which will in turn cause bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhoea. These people must avoid gluten, as continued attacks by the body could permanently damage the intestines.
There is also a subset of people who are allergic to gluten but don’t necessarily have celiac disease. They could in fact be allergic to wheat as a whole, or gluten could simply be an irritant, causing abdominal cramps, and bloating. This is not as bad as celiac disease, but it’s still advisable to avoid gluten.
Should everybody follow a gluten-free diet?
This is a topic that can be debated. For those who are sensitive to gluten, it is a necessity to avoid gluten. But for the others, the benefits of avoiding gluten are significantly low. Most of the gluten-free options available in supermarkets are processed foods, containing high amounts of saturated fats, sugar, and other preservatives.
Since whole meats do not contain gluten, there is also a risk of eating too much meat, which could bring about a negative impact on those trying to be healthy. Foods that include gluten do contain other nutrients and minerals that are needed for the body.
However, people do tend to believe that being gluten-free could prove to be the healthier diet choice. There is currently no conclusive scientific evidence to prove so. Since people with celiac disease do feel better once they avoid gluten, the general public believes that avoiding gluten can help in avoiding bloating and abdominal pain.
Bloating and abdominal pain can be caused by several other factors (for those not gluten-sensitive). It would be better to do an elimination test and find out which foods cause the abdominal cramps, rather than quitting gluten.
Benefits of avoiding gluten (for those with gluten sensitivity):
For those suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, there are some positive changes that they can benefit from if they completely avoid gluten and eat healthy, unprocessed meals.
1. Improves Energy Levels:
Those with gluten sensitivity usually suffer from chronic fatigue. This is because gluten damages the intestines, which doesn’t allow for the absorption of iron. Low levels of iron lead to anaemia, causing fatigue. Avoiding gluten can help in healing the intestines, leading to more iron and increased energy.
2. Reduces Joint Pain:
Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder, where your body is attacking its own system. This leads to inflammation which leads to joint and muscular pain. Cutting off gluten can avoid inflammation for those suffering from this disease.
3. Eliminates Bloating:
Since bloating is a common symptom for those with gluten intolerance, bloating reduces significantly by cutting off gluten.
4. Improves Weight:
Bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea are common symptoms of celiac disease. However, since the symptoms are mostly vague, the disease can go undiagnosed for long periods, which will reduce weight. Avoiding gluten can help maintain a healthy weight.
5. Reduces Lactose Intolerance:
Those with gluten sensitivity also suffer from lactose intolerance, since the body destroys the lining of the intestine, which contains the enzyme lactase. Without lactase, it is difficult to break down the lactose present in dairy, hence leading to lactose intolerance.
6. Reduces Headaches:
Studies have shown that those with celiac disease also suffer from migraine headaches, which can be reduced by avoiding gluten.
What are the cons of going gluten-free?
Unless you are diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, it is unnecessary to go gluten-free. By reducing gluten foods, you are also reducing fiber, iron, and other fortified minerals. Also, the possibility of consuming processed foods goes higher.
It is inadvisable to follow a trend diet or a fad diet, just for the sake of it. Unless your doctor advises you to avoid gluten, there’s no scientific evidence supporting the significant benefits of a gluten-free diet.
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