Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune disorder characterized by a severe allergy to gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye). When people with celiac disease ingest gluten, their body begins to attack their small intestine, causing a number of symptoms, some related to gastrointestinal pain and discomfort. If left untreated, celiac disease leads to serious health problems down the road, including organ damage and other diseases. Clearly, this is a severe condition, and the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet in order to reduce inflammation in the gut and other health risks. While about 30% of people may have the genetic makeup that puts them at risk for celiac, only 1-3% of people truly have the disease.
Despite the rarity of the condition, the gluten-free diet is growing in popularity, with proponents denouncing gluten altogether. What has caused people to follow this diet so passionately, and could there really be benefits for non-celiac sufferers?
As you may imagine, gluten is found in many common foods, and cutting it out completely is no small undertaking. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, and wheat is found in most bread, cakes and pastries, cereals, cookies, pasta, pizza crusts, and other bready foods like breaded meat, seafood, vegetables, and poultry. Barley and rye are also somewhat common, and are found in beer and bread. You might not expect that many flavorings and sauces contain gluten, such as soy sauce, spaghetti or stir fry sauce, and salad dressings. Processed cheese, snack foods, candy, and even soup, soup mixes, or seasoned rice mixes often contain gluten or hydrolyzed wheat protein.
Cutting out all of these foods may seem impossible, but there are more gluten-free foods than you may think. Corn, plain rice, and grains like amarinth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, flax or tapioca are gluten-free. Gluten-free flours, and baked goods made with these flours, like those made from oats, nuts, beans or coconut are included in the diet. Dairy products like milk, eggs, yogurt and non-processed cheese are gluten-free as well. Plain fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and legumes are allowed on the diet, as are spices, and distilled alcohol.
Creating a diet that only includes these foods requires a little creativity with fresh ingredients, and a willingness to check labels and learn how to cook.
So Why Go to all this Effort?
While consuming gluten is life-threatening for people with celiac disease, it is not so serious for those people without the disease. Many believe, however, that cutting out gluten will help them feel better and lose weight. There is such a thing as being gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive, also known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Gluten intolerance or sensitivity does affect many people. The symptoms of gluten sensitivity include cramping, bloating, diarrhea or gas after eating gluten-containing foods, but consuming gluten does not cause permanent damage to the intestinal lining. For these people, cutting out gluten will help reduce these symptoms, and probably increase energy levels.
For the rest of us, cutting out gluten could help with weight loss, but this positive side effect of the diet may come down to common sense. Cutting out processed foods like snacks, candy, cheese and salty pre-packaged foods simultaneously cuts out unhealthy additions to our diet. Without gluten, we are more dependent on fresh vegetables and fruit, wholesome grains, protein and healthy fats like avocado, nuts, or fresh dairy products. Cutting out bread, pasta and baked goods could also be cutting out “empty calories,” or carbohydrates that have little nutritional content. If you cut out gluten-containing carbohydrates, and notice your stomach feels flatter, you could be a person that is gluten sensitive, or you could be losing weight from cutting out unnecessary carbs. Your body uses carbohydrates first as a source of energy. When fewer carbohydrates are available, it uses fat stores for energy, which eventually leads to weight loss.
On the other hand, there is research that shows that consuming wheat does cause inflammation. Maintaining a diet that contains more processed foods (which are also almost always gluten-containing) and fewer anti-inflammatory foods, like those with Omega-3, 6, and antioxidants, causes our bodies to become more inflamed. This inflammation can affect the stomach, joints, skin, and energy levels. Gluten foods also do not often contain much protein or fiber (unless whole grain). By cutting out the gluten-containing foods, we are often increasing our healthier foods, and thereby decreasing inflammation. In short, this is how people make such broad statements that gluten-free diets increase focus and energy levels, decrease joint pain, and even help with symptoms of autism. The foods containing gluten are often the quickest and easiest to reach for because they are processed, ready-made, and provide quick energy. A gluten-free diet forces us to think a little bit harder about what we are eating, and eat more nutrition-full and plant-based ingredients that tout their own health benefits.
Celiac disease is itself a rare and severe condition. People who claim they have the disease without seeing a doctor are probably not educated on true gluten intolerance. Gluten sensitivity, however, is more common, and if you are experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort after eating gluten, it may be worth experimenting with cutting it out. Even for people without gluten sensitivity, most gluten-containing foods are not very healthy. Cutting out some or all gluten from your diet may lead to weight loss and more energy, simply because it will increase your intake of veggies, protein, and healthy fats. Whole-wheat pasta and bread are a much better option than white, and snack foods and high-sodium processed foods do not contain much nutritional content. If in doubt, remember that it is almost always better to balance your meals with a variety of color and food types on your plate.