The Great Gluten Debate
Should you go gluten-free? Let the experts break it down for you.
It's a diet buzz word and a hotly debated health topic: gluten-free. What is it? Why do people do it? Should you be doing it? In order to clear up some of the mysteries, the experts at Methodist Health System are here to help you understand and decide if you should go gluten-free.
First off, what is gluten?
Gluten is a kind of protein found in wheat, rye, barley, malt, and sometimes mixed oats.
So mainly bread and pasta?
Yes, although gluten can also be found in foods such as salad dressing, soy sauce, pie crust, cereal, beer, candy bars, soup, meat substitutes made with seitan, and granola bars.
Why would anyone voluntarily not eat bread, pasta, and candy bars?
Some people don't have a choice. If you have celiac disease, your body can't digest gluten — your immune system literally attacks the small intestine and stops it from taking in nutrients. That often results in stomach trouble, but can also show itself in extreme weight loss, fatigue, and even moodiness or depression.
More than 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease (as many as 1 in every 133 Americans), and many people may not know they have the genetic condition. If you think you might, see your doctor to rule out other possibilities (more on that below).
Why does it seem like everyone is suddenly following a gluten-free diet?
Misinformation, and the desire to do what's trendy. If you are not celiac or gluten-sensitive, then going gluten-free may not actually do anything for you.
But isn't it healthier?
Not necessarily. In fact, removing gluten from the diet can have nutritional implications. Unless you replace the other nutrients that are commonly found in foods with gluten — fiber, B vitamins, calcium, carbohydrates, iron — you're setting yourself up for deficiencies.
How do I know if I have a gluten sensitivity?
In order to diagnose celiac, you have to undergo blood testing and a biopsy of your small intestine. However, there is no testing that can accurately diagnose a sensitivity, and there are many individuals who do suffer from gluten sensitivity but that don't have celiac. The only way to figure it out is to be diligent about removing gluten from your diet for four weeks, and then assessing the effect.
What are some other conditions are often mistaken for gluten sensitivity?
Since celiac and gluten sensitivity is so hard to diagnose, a lot of other diseases and problems might actually be the culprit. Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, an infected colon, intestinal infections, and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine all have similar symptoms. It's always best to see your doctor, and not try to self-diagnose.
When should I really not try a gluten-free diet?
If you suspect you might have celiac, it is critical that you don't do a four-week gluten-free trial diet. Gluten must be present in your system in order to accurately diagnose celiac disease.
My doctor confirmed it: I have celiac disease. What's it going to be like grocery shopping or going to restaurants now?
The upside of gluten being such a hot topic is that many restaurants and grocery stores now have gluten-free options. Often chain establishments are better at promoting these types of options, as well as implementing strict controls for the prevention of cross-contamination in the kitchen. It is much easier than ever to live gluten-free if you need to.