Getting to Know Your Gut: A Guide to Gluten

Cutting gluten when you don’t need to could cost you money and nutrients. Read on to uncover common symptoms for celiac disease and wheat sensitivity.

Person making a homemade bread

Going gluten-free seems like the new “way to be”, based on media testimonials and marketing. But breaking up with bread when you don’t need to could cost you money and nutrients. Find out the difference between celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity and what foods that contain gluten. 

What is gluten?

Walk into any market and or restaurant and you’ll notice foods flaunting the words “gluten-free”. One in five Americans say that they try to include gluten-free foods in their diet (1). Yet only 35% know what gluten is and where it’s found (2).  

Gluten is a protein that’s found in many grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a mix between wheat and rye). It’s a combination of hundreds of types of protein, mainly gliadin and glutenin. Gluten holds bread together and is what gives it it’s unique chewy and springy texture (3).

Why go gluten-free?

Gluten can cause an immune response and damage to the lining of the digestive tract in people with certain conditions such as celiac disease (3). Gluten-related symptoms can also be caused by an allergic reaction or sensitivity.  

Celiac disease

About three million people in the United States suffer from celiac disease (4). This is an autoimmune condition that causes a flare-up when the person eats anything that has gluten. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, there is an immune response and damage to the gut lining. 

Common side effects include severe digestive problems (cramps, aches, diarrhea), head and body aches, skin rashes, eczema. Since the gluten damages the digestive lining, nutrient deficiencies are common (4). 

If you think you may have a reaction to gluten, consult with your doctor or medical provider. They can provide a lab test to screen for antibodies then confirm with an intestinal biopsy (viewing what’s going on inside your digestive tract). 

Wheat allergy

Wheat allergy symptoms can vary but can be dangerous. Symptoms usually occur within minutes to hours of eating gluten. Common allergic responses are itching, swelling, skin rash, and life-threatening anaphylaxis (5). 

True allergic reactions can be unpredictable and dangerous. If you think you may have a wheat allergy, it’s important to talk to your doctor. You may need to keep an epinephrine drug, such as EpiPen, with you at all times. 

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity 

More research needs to be done in order to confirm diagnosis, prevalence, and management of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. People who suspect that they are sensitive to gluten report a range of symptoms from bloating, diarrhea, constipation, foggy brain or headache (6). 

What foods have gluten?

Gluten can be found in many types of foods, some of which can be difficult to identify. A good place to start is to hone in on these three common sources:

  • Wheat: bread, pasta, cereal, baked goods, soup, sauces, salad dressing.
  • Barley: beer, malt (malted milkshake, malt extract, malt flavoring, malt vinegar), soup, food coloring.
  • Rye: rye bread, pumpernickel bread, rye beer, cereal.
  • Triticale: brean, pasta, cereal.

Oats on their own are gluten-free, however, if you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, only use oats labeled as gluten-free. This is because they are often grown next to wheat, barley, or rye plants and cross-contamination can occur (7).

How to identify gluten ingredients  

If a food has a “gluten-free” label, it’s most likely safe to eat since this is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as having less than 20 parts per million. Keep in mind that “wheat-free” doesn’t always mean “gluten-free”. 

It’s still a good idea to check the ingredient list. Common gluten ingredients include: wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast, and oats (7). If you go out to eat, make sure to inform the restaurant about any allergy or sensitivity. 

Gluten-free doesn’t always equal healthy 

Cutting out gluten-containing whole grains means you may miss out on nutrients. Rye and whole grain products are rich in B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate) which help with energy, and minerals (iron, magnesium, selenium) which help improve immunity (8). They also contain fiber, which helps boost healthy bacteria

Just because something is labeled as gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Many gluten-free products are even more processed than their gluten counterparts. 

Healthy gluten-free foods 

Following a gluten-free diet can be healthy when you focus on wholesome alternatives. 

  • Carbohydrates
    • Brown rice
    • Beans and lentils
    • Potatoes 
    • Quinoa
    • Corn and corn meal (polenta, 100% corn taco shells)
    • Amaranth
    • Buckwheat 
    • Teff

  • Proteins
    • Beans and lentils
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Seafood (fresh fish, shellfish, scallops)
    • Fresh red meat (beef, lamb, bison, pork, lamb)
    • Poultry (fresh chicken and turkey)
    • Eggs 
    • Dairy (milk, cottage cheese, plain yogurt)
      • Some varieties of cheese (goat, feta, ricotta, swiss)

  • Fats
    • Butter
    • Avocado
    • Coconut oil
    • Olives 
    • Vegetable oils (olive, sesame, canola)

  • Fruits and vegetables
    • All fresh 
    • Dried - plain, unsweetened
    • Canned - with water or natural juices
    • Frozen - plain

Some canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables may contain added ingredients that contain gluten. Be sure to check the ingredient list.

Final grains of information 

A gluten-free diet is important if you suffer from celiac disease or wheat allergy. When it comes to related health claims like weight management, increased energy, and decreased inflammation and brain fog, more research is required. 

The most important thing you can do for overall health, increased energy, and feeling good is to focus on whole foods such as whole grains (gluten-free if needed), fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean sources of protein. 

One of the best ways you can avoid gluten and eat naturally is to cook at home. Need some inspiration to get you started? Try out these gluten-free Lifesum recipes today:

Feta Cheese and Rice Salad

Oven Baked Cod and Cabbage

Grilled Chicken with Veggies

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