Why Go Gluten Free? 8 Popular Gluten Free Questions Answered
Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with celiac disease or you simply want to learn more about the gluten free diet, here are the answers to 8 of the most commonly asked questions we’ve heard this month.
Who Should Follow a Gluten Free Diet?
Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains including wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives dough its elasticity and it also acts as a binder in certain recipes. Switching to the gluten free diet is a choice that anyone can make, but there are certain people for whom it is a medical necessity. If you have one of the following conditions, you should be following a gluten free diet:
- Celiac disease
- Wheat allergy
- Gluten intolerance
- Gluten sensitivity
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition triggered by gluten consumption and it results in damage to the small intestine which can interfere with nutrient absorption in addition to causing other negative side effects. A wheat allergy is similar in that the immune system is also implicated, but it can be triggered by any of the proteins found in wheat – not just gluten. If a celiac consumes gluten, they may experience digestive or cognitive symptoms. If someone with a wheat allergy consumes wheat, they may experience an anaphylactic reaction.
Also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten sensitivity occurs when someone experiences negative side effects after ingesting gluten, but they do not suffer intestinal damage. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include headache, fatigue, bloating, and diarrhea. A gluten intolerance is often described as a more severe form of gluten sensitivity, though it is not a widely accepted medical diagnosis. Any of these four conditions should benefit from a gluten free diet.
How is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?
Diagnosing celiac disease can be tricky because there is such a wide range of potential symptoms and the condition affects each individual differently. Though celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune condition with no known cure, it may not manifest immediately. It is possible for children to be born with active celiac disease, but it also possible for the condition to remain dormant until triggered by some kind of stressful life event. Being a carrier of the celiac disease gene doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will develop the disease, but it does increase your risk.
If your doctor suspects that you have celiac disease, you will likely go through a series of tests. Your doctor will start with a review of your medical history as well as your symptoms and will complete a physical exam. The next step is to perform a serologic blood test to screen for celiac disease antibodies – the most commonly used test is the tTg-IgA test. If your test shows celiac disease antibodies, your doctor may request an endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis. Evidence of physical damage to the small intestine (particularly the cilia lining the intestinal wall) will confirm a diagnosis of celiac disease.
What Are the Health Benefits of a Gluten Free Diet?
The gluten free diet is nothing special in terms of health benefits except, of course, to people with celiac disease, gluten allergies, and gluten sensitivity/intolerance. For those people, switching to a gluten free diet can provide the following benefits:
- Improved digestion – relief from bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
- Resolved mental symptoms – balanced mood, reduced irritability, relief from anxiety.
- Increased nutrient absorption – improved energy levels and nutritional balance.
- Decreased inflammation – reduced risk for inflammatory diseases.
Even if you are not allergic or overly sensitive to gluten, switching to a gluten free diet could resolve symptoms of mild sensitivity.
What Does Gluten Do to Your Stomach?
The fact of the matter is that gluten is not some toxic substance. It is simply a type of protein found in certain grains which can cause a negative reaction in people who are sensitive or allergic to it. When someone who does not have celiac disease or any type of gluten allergy or sensitivity consumes gluten, it is digested in the same way as any other food. Here’s what happens:
- When you swallow the gluten-containing food, it passes through your esophagus and into the stomach where stomach acid and digestive enzymes begin breaking it down.
- The food moves through the stomach and into the small intestine where transglutaminase (tTg) enzymes begin breaking it down further into its primary building blocks – gliadin and glutenin.
- As the smaller particles move through your digestive tract, your immune system checks them for potentially harmful substances and one of two things will happen:
- If you have no problems with gluten, the proteins will be absorbed into the bloodstream.
- If you have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or a gluten intolerance/sensitivity, the immune system will identify the gliadin protein as a dangerous substance and produce antibodies to attack it.
In cases where the immune system produces antibodies to attack the gliadin protein, several things happen. First, it is important to know that the antibodies attack more than just the gliadin – they also attack the tTg that broke it down in the first place. In doing so, these antibodies also damage the microvilli lining the intestines which increase the surface area over which nutrients can be absorbed.
When those microvilli are damaged, it decreases your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and it allows partially digested food and other substances to leak through the small intestine into the body. This can lead to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome which produces symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition.
Is Gluten Fattening? Does it Make You Bloated?
If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity/intolerance, bloating and other digestive symptoms are very common. Gluten itself is not fattening, but your body’s reaction to it could cause you to become bloated which may make you look heavier than you actually are. Even mild gluten sensitivities can trigger a digestive reaction which may include bloating.
Another factor to consider in this equation is inflammation. In addition to the intestinal damage caused by gluten consumption, it can also contribute to widespread inflammation in the body. Inflammation can increase your risk for a wide range of chronic health problems including obesity. For people with celiac disease, gluten allergies, and gluten sensitivity/intolerance, switching to a gluten free diet typically resolves these symptoms.
Are There Any Dangers of a Gluten Free Diet if You’re Not Celiac?
While the gluten free diet is a medical necessity for some, others view it as a trend – a new diet that will help them lose weight or that might provide other health benefits. It is important to note, however, that there is no medical benefit to going gluten free unless you are allergic to it or sensitive to it in some way. In fact, going gluten free if you are not celiac could have some negative effects.
According to the results of a new study published in the British Medical Journal, restricting gluten intake can be harmful for people who do not suffer from celiac disease. Research suggests that it may be because people who go gluten free often reduce their intake of whole grains altogether. Whole grains are known to provide cardiovascular benefits, so making this switch could be bad for your heart.
Will Going Gluten Free Help Me Lose Weight?
The simple act of removing gluten from your diet is not guaranteed to help you lose weight. In order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume on a daily basis. This can be accomplished through an increase in exercise to create a calorie deficit or simply by consuming fewer calories than you burn.
While gluten itself does not cause you to gain weight, people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity/intolerance sometimes have trouble maintaining a healthy body weight. Either of these conditions may affect your body’s ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients which could lead to malnutrition and weight loss. When you switch to a gluten free diet and your digestion heals, it could cause you to begin gaining weight.
If Something is Gluten Free is it Also Wheat Free?
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains including wheat, barley, and rye. Technically speaking, gluten is made up of two primary proteins – gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the protein responsible for most of the negative health effects seen in cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity/intolerance, but it is just one of the many proteins found in wheat. Because gluten is simply one of many proteins found in wheat, something that is gluten free is not necessarily wheat free.
By now you should have a more thorough understanding of what it means to go gluten free and why you might do it. If you have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or a gluten sensitivity/intolerance, going gluten free might not be a choice but that doesn’t mean you need to be deprived of your favorite foods. Gluten free food companies like Schär offer a wide variety of foods that are both delicious and safe for you to enjoy.