Wondering What the Deal Is With Gluten? Here's Your Guide

Doctors and registered dietitians explain.

"Gluten" has become quite a buzzword in recent years as gluten-free products take over grocery store shelves and people hop on board the gluten-free diet train.

If you've heard the terms "celiac disease" or "gluten intolerance" you likely know that a lot of people have issues with this protein that occurs naturally in many foods. Or maybe you've heard of people avoiding gluten in an effort to lose weight. We know gluten is a "problem," but what is gluten, exactly? And should everyone be avoiding it? We talked with experts to find out—here's what you should know, from the top signs of gluten intolerance to what a gluten-free diet entails.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale, which is a newer grain that’s a cross between wheat and rye. The gluten protein is formed by combining two molecules—glutenin and gliadin—that when mixed with water create a structural network. That structure is what gives noodles a bounce, pizza crust a chewiness, and cakes a spring. In Latin, gluten means glue, and that’s exactly what this protein does for food.

Gluten is typically associated with bread, cereal, pasta, baked goods, and beer, but that list is hardly comprehensive. Because of its binding capabilities, gluten is also found in many soups, sauces, and salad dressings. Because gluten is found in so many unexpected places, people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease need to be savvy about reading labels.

Related: What is Glyphosate? 

Signs Of Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Tina Patnode, a registered dietician who specializes in gut health, says understanding gluten intolerance means first understanding celiac disease, though they are not the same thing.

Patnode explains that there is a distinct difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, aka non-celiac gluten sensitivity. "Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which gluten damages the intestinal tract lining. A strict, life-long, gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease.”

Functional nutritionist Jen Dreisch says that a person with gluten intolerance will have many of the same reactions as a person with celiac, but they don’t have the autoimmune response and “the antibodies attacking their bodies.” Reactions may look like:

  • Headaches

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Rash

  • Bloating

  • Gas

  • Pain in stomach

  • Pain in joints

  • Eczema

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • IBS

  • Inflammation

  • Malabsorption

  • Irritability

  • Neurological problems

  • Weight loss

  • Vomiting

Dreisch adds that so much of a person’s ability to tolerate gluten has to do with a healthy microbiome and she uses the GI-Map (Microbial Assay Plus) test which detects parasites, bacteria, and fungi as well as some viral pathogens. She also recommends the MRT (Mediator Release Test) which is a blood test that quantifies an individual’s inflammation response both to food and chemicals in food. The MRT not only lets you know which foods to avoid but also tells you which foods are the best foods for your body.

Related: Going Gluten-Free: Hype or Help?

What Is Gluten In?

As mentioned, gluten is found in the usual suspects—bread, cereal, pasta, and baked goods—but it’s also found in a lot of unexpected places like soups, sauces, gravies, and condiments because it works as a thickener.

Another example of this? Many people assume that meat is gluten-free. Meat is naturally gluten-free regardless of what the animal eats, but gluten is found in many processed meats. Beyond Celiac points out that battered, breaded, or floured meats contain gluten if made with wheat-based products, and because many marinades also contain gluten it's important to be on the lookout for soy and teriyaki sauces that are not wheat-free. In addition, wheat-free doesn't also mean gluten-free. The Celiac Disease Foundation is an excellent resource for learning how to read labels.

Related: Gluten-Free Mug Cake Recipes

What Is a Gluten-Free Diet?

Eating gluten-free is easier than ever, but a healthy gluten-free diet doesn’t mean loading up on gluten substitutes. Gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, etc. make life easier for those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, but they’re often high in sugar, trans-fats, and additives that make a “fake food” mimic real food.

Dr. Mark Hyman, head of strategy and innovation at the Cleveland Clinic explains that a gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthy diet. Hyman asks that we don’t shoot the messenger but says, “gluten-free cupcakes and cookies are still cupcakes and cookies. Besides usually being higher in sugar and other junk ingredients, the “gluten-free” claim creates a health halo so you’re often reaching for seconds and thirds.”

Dr. Mark Hyman—like Patnode, Dreisch, and most nutritionists—encourages people to eat a diet rich in whole foods and to limit or eliminate processed foods. Instead of searching for foods labeled gluten-free, look for whole-food, plant-based recipes make with fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free grains.

Next up, here are the health benefits of going gluten-free.


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