Gluten Fact Vs Fiction: The Health Risks and Benefits
What is Gluten?
Did you know gluten is actually a protein? It is naturally occurring and can be found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten can also be found in many unexpected foods such as wheat in sauces/dressings and malt used in milkshakes. The protein in gluten helps foods maintain their shape acting as a glue to hold everything together.
When You Should Avoid Gluten
Unless you have a wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, gluten itself isn't harmful to your body. Unlike celiac disease, gluten intolerance doesn't cause long-term harm to the body. Whereas if you are diagnosed with celiac disease, your small intestines lining will become damaged which can lead to the inability for the small intestine to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.
Gluten sensitivity isn't the same as celiac. Only about 1% of Americans actually have celiac and 6% is believed to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Although symptoms may overlap, researchers are unable to pinpoint what happens in the body with NCGS. These both require gluten-free diets but strict avoidance is only necessary for people diagnosed with celiac.
If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, don't stop eating it! Rachel Begun, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in Los Angeles says, "It’s important to get a true diagnosis, because there may be other components in gluten-containing foods causing your symptoms — and therefore, going gluten-free may not be the proper treatment. You actually need to be eating gluten on a regular basis for diagnostic testing to be accurate.”
To be tested for celiac disease, you need to eat a gluten-containing diet for at least six weeks.
The Health Benefits of a Gluten Diet
Unless you have a diagnosed gluten sensitivity or intolerance, your body should have no issues processing it. It's true that our bodies don't make the enzyme required for proper breakdown of the protein, but that's where our immune system kicks in to help the process.
Attention from the media has led a lot of people to believe gluten is unhealthy. According to a study done in 2017, 100,000 people without celiac disease, there was no found association between long-term dietary gluten consumption and heart disease risk. The findings actually showed that those with NCGS who avoid gluten may increase their risk of heart disease.
There have been other studies that have linked whole grain consumption with improved health outcomes. Research done by PB Mellen, TF Walsh, and DM Herrington showed that groups with the highest intake of whole grains compared with groups eating the lowest amounts had significantly lower rates of heart disease, strokes and development of type 2 diabetes.
Gluten and Weight Loss
A misconception that people often make is that the words "gluten-free" are healthier and help you lose weight. Gluten-free can be just as unhealthy as any other diet. Some gluten-free products can contain more sugar and fats than gluten-containing products to aid with taste and texture.
This doesn't mean that you can't lose weight while on a gluten-free diet, but the weight loss might not be directly tied to gluten. These types of diets tend to cut back on processed foods that contain unhealthy fats, sugars and calories. Examples of these include: fast food and bakery items. Consuming less of these foods is where the benefits of weight loss are coming from most of the time, it isn't gluten-specific.