what is gluten anyway?

Perhaps you’ve already seen this hilarious clip from Jimmy Kimmel but, if not, you should take a couple of minutes to watch it right now:

Funny, right? Mostly because it’s true. People like to jump on a bandwagon, even if they have no idea why. Which I thought provided a perfect opportunity to answer that question here and hopefully clear up some of the confusion.

So, what is gluten? Prepare for a mini food science lesson. In wheat, there are two proteins called glutenin and gliadin that, when combined with a liquid (and yeast, such as in the making of bread), forms gluten. Gluten gives the bread dough its stretchy quality, allowing it to rise and leaving you with a delicously chewy pizza crust or loaf of bread. Which is precisely why you don’t want to over mix muffins, cookie dough, pancakes, etc. The more you mix these, the more you develop gluten and a tougher, chewier final product. Not exactly what you want in a muffin.

Now, you might be thinking “where on earth did this bad reputation come from then?” Well, some people have what is called Celiac disease, where the body mounts an immune response when there is gluten present in the GI tract. This leads to inflammation in the lining of the GI tract and a variety of symptoms that are not necessarily GI-related, such as fatigue, signs of vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and other inflammatory conditions like joint pain and skin issues. The only treatment for Celiac disease? Lifelong avoidance of gluten – IN EVERYTHING. Gluten is also in some cosmetics, other non-food products, and even in normally gluten-free foods (oats, for example) that have been prepared or packaged in the same facility as gluten-containing foods. Even the smallest exposure can trigger the inflammatory response and cause damage to the intestines and damaged intestines affect the body’s ability to absorb and utilize nutrients, which can cause malnutrition. There is another group of people who may have gluten intolerance or a gluten insensitivity. While avoiding gluten may help these people avoid unpleasant GI side-effects, no damage to the GI tract occurs when they consume gluten.

As you can imagine, avoiding all sources of gluten places a huge burden on someone who must be entirely gluten free. It makes it extremely difficult to eat anything that you didn’t prepare yourself, including packaged foods or foods prepared at a restaurant or by a friend.

Somewhere along the line, this therapeutic diet got turned into the latest fad diet. As one lady in the video stated, many think gluten “makes you fat”. Not so much. I don’t think we need to go into an excessive review of how energy balance works, but there is no single food or food component that will make you fat. An excess of calories and inadequate physical activity will make you fat.

Some people find success with a gluten free diet because gluten is mostly found in things like bread, pasta, cereal, desserts, and packaged foods all of which pack a decent amount of calories. Cut those out and you’re left with fruits, vegetables, dairy, and proteins.

Replace your pasta with spaghetti squash and you’ve easily cut out a couple hundred calories from one meal alone. Opt for fresh fruit after dinner instead of 5 Oreos and, boom, another couple hundred calories saved. And guess what? You also feel a whole lot better when you aren’t eating loads of packaged, nutrient-poor foods. It may seem like the gluten is what was causing all of your problems before, but it was probably just the types of gluten-containing foods you were choosing.

I could go on, but let’s sum things up.:

  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
  • It does not make you fat.
  • Cutting out gluten-containing foods sometimes forces people to pay closer attention to what they eat and leads them to make healthier choices, resulting in more energy and possibly weight loss. You could get the same effect with a balanced, healthy diet that does contain gluten.
  • People with Celiac disease should most definitely avoid gluten in food AND non-food products.
  • Also, let’s not forget that cutting out an entire food group also cuts out important nutrients that may be hard to get in appropriate amounts from other food groups.
  • Only trust a registered dietitian for your nutrition information. We go through countless hours of schooling and practical experience and are trained to provide recommendations based on research – not what our cousin Sally did that worked well for her. Everyone is different and that requires an individual approach to nutrition, which only a registered dietitian is qualified to provide.

If you ever suspect that you have Celiac disease, DO NOT cut out gluten from your diet before seeing a doctor and getting tested for Celiac. Removing gluten before the test can affect the test results and could lead to an improper diagnosis.

One final little side-note: gluten free cookies (and other packaged foods) have the same nutritional value as any other cookies. They are not a health food because they’re gluten free. The eating plan, in any case, is one centered around minimally processed whole foods.

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