‘Gluten-free options available’. ‘No gluten’. We often hear or see these terms advertised but what is gluten? What does it do to our bodies and what do these statements actually mean? These statements often get us thinking without us realising. Should I go gluten free?
Gluten-containing grains, such as wheat, rye and barley, have been a component of the human diet in Western countries for thousands of years. Due to the progressive adoption of Western lifestyles, consumption in Eastern countries is increasing. Gluten-related disorders have a global prevalence that is estimated around 5%.
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and their varying forms. It gives baked goods a doughy and elastic property and is also used as a thickening agent and flavour enhancer. It consists of gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is what causes the adverse effects when consumed.
We are no longer eating the same type of wheat that our ancestors ate. In order for the crops to be resistant to environmental factors such as bugs and the weather, the grains have been hybridised, resulting in varying forms of gluten. Many of these forms can lead to sensitivity when they are consumed.
How does gliadin affect my body?
When your food gets to your intestines, an enzyme (tTG – tissue transaglutaminase) breaks gluten down into gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is then broken down into peptides in the digestive system and then into amino acids.
Dr Fasano, paediatric gastroenterologist and researcher from Harvard explains that gliadin binds to the intestinal lining which activates a complex mechanism resulting in barriers (that are usually closed) being opened in the intestinal lining. When these barriers are opened, bacteria as well as gliadin moves into the blood stream and into the body. Gliadin resembles human proteins such as the ‘synaptin protein’ and therefore, can activate an autoimmune response. The body cannot tell the difference between gliadin and the human proteins as they look similar and so their effects are the same. This can result in common symptoms of autoimmune diseases including fatigue, fever and feeling generally unwell.
The amino acids also bind to the human brain and act as opiates. The opiate effect depends on the individual. It can lead to mental fog, outbursts in ADHD, paranoia, trigger mania in bipolar and even trigger depression.
What is celiac disease?
When gluten is consumed, an autoimmune response occurs in the body which results in damage to the villi of the small intestine. These villi are finger like projections that create a larger surface area for nutrients to be absorbed. When the villi are damaged, the body is unable to absorb the necessary nutrients that the body needs. There are more than 200 symptoms of celiac disease including abdominal bloating and pain, constipation, diarrhoea, vomiting and fatigue.
How do I know if I am gluten intolerant?
Take gluten out of your diet for a month and see if you feel better. If you do, chances are that gluten is not working well on your body. Lab testing is also an option to determine if gluten suits you. Bloating is a common symptom gluten allergies, you should definitely seek bloating treatment if you want to clear up your symptoms.
Are gluten-free products healthy?
Data in the 2013 Gluten-Free/Diabetes Friendly Handbook, a Supplement to Grocery Headquarters Magazine suggests that $4.5 billion US dollars were spent on gluten free items in 2012. There is also an increasing trend amongst restaurants with increasing gluten-free options on menus.
Gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthy. If gluten has been removed form a product, it may be loaded up with other additives as well as sugar to aid texture and flavour. This processing commonly results in an unhealthy gluten-free item that many of us think is healthy. Always check your food labels. A gluten-free diet can be very healthy providing it is based on real whole foods.
Here are a few gluten free food choices:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans, nuts and seeds
- Lean meats, poultry and fish
- Gluten-free whole grains
- Gluten-free whole grain flours
- Certified gluten-free oats
- Brown rice
- Nut flours
If you’re having digestive issues or are experiencing fatigue, it may mean that your body does not take too well to gluten. Eliminate all sources of gluten (e.g. bread, pasta and noodles) for 7 to 10 days to see if this makes a difference. If you do find that you are slightly gluten-sensitive, opt for whole and real foods rather than ‘gluten-free’ ready made options as you would still want to keep a balanced diet. Remember to read your labels!
To find out more about gluten-sensitivity and celiac disease, do read about it here.
Elli L et al, Diagnosis of gluten related disorders: Celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Jun 21; 21(23): 7110–7119
William Davis MD www.wheatbellyblog.com
Weiser H, Chemistry of gluten proteins Food Microbiology Volume 24, Issue 2, April 2007, P. 115–119
Celiac Disease Foundation What is Celiac Disease www.celiac.org Accessed 07 May 2017
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