Gluten: to eat or not to eat?

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If Hamlet were real and alive and kicking today he be would more confused than ever. For people who don’t suffer from celiac disease, the concept of being gluten-free has resulted in much debate, there are those who chalk it up to a scam and want to be left alone with their pizzas, to individuals who are still wondering whether or not to take that leap of faith and go gluten-free to others who vehemently avoid gluten like the plague. Like most people I’m in no man’s land. I prefer to do without it and have a sneaky suspicion that it does give my gut grief but have yet to become 100% gluten-free. Here is Alina’s take on it.

By Alina Islam – Founder of The Green Lunchbox, a nutritional coaching company for busy people.

Still figuring out whether you should be trying to go gluten-free? Don’t worry – the most esteemed scientists, doctors and nutritionists still don’t fully understand what is going on either. Enough studies haven’t been done, or there is too much controversy surrounding existing research.

My personal approach is to understand as much as possible about gluten by reading studies, articles, applying my own logic and testing it on myself to see how I feel. My energy and digestive health have improved without gluten. I’ll still have it once in a while (birthday cake, pizza) but will feel the difference afterwards.

Today’s buzzword: Gluten-free

What is gluten?

Steven Jones, director of Washington State University’s Bread Lab speaks about gluten: “We put a plug of gluten in coke and it foamed for a while, then became a glob that sat there for weeks… It didn’t disintegrate into slime and mush. It just stayed there.’’ [Jones} took the plug… and slapped it on the lab counter. Nothing happened. “The stuff is simply indestructible,’’ he said. – [Michael Specter, Against The Grain, The New Yorker]

Gluten is a combination of proteins (glutenin and gliadin) that are found a number of grains, the most common one being wheat. Gluten means glue in Latin, quite literally it is the glue or binding agent that gives bread it’s shape, chewiness, elasticity, and allows bread to rise.

Where is it found?

Other than wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, bran, bulgur, couscous, faro, farina, durum, matzo, orzo, panko, semolina, triticale and udon. The most worrisome is wheat since it has the highest gluten content and it’s in cookies, crackers, cake, bagels, bread, donuts, pastries, wraps, pita bread, croissants, muffins, cereals, granola, noodles, pasta etc. Gluten, also used as a stabilizer or filler in many processed foods can be found hidden in ketchup, salad dressings, cheese spreads and margarine.

Why the sudden issue with eating gluten? We’ve been eating it for centuries!

The wheat we consume today bares little or no resemblance to what was eaten by our ancestors. In “Wheat Belly”, William Davis explains that we used to eat 14-chromosome Einkorn wheat, which has now turned into 42-chromosome Emmer wheat, thanks to bioengineering and hybridization to make a cheaper, higher-yield product. Which helps us to understand why so many people are sensitive to wheat, our system just doesn’t recognize it as food. 

Doesn’t help that we are also eating a lot more of it! Gluten (like glue) leaves a sticky, pasty residue behind in your gut that blocks the microvilli lining your intestinal wall from absorbing nutrients properly. This can lead to a damaged gut wall, inflammation and an autoimmune response.

If consumed once in a while it may not do much harm but think about how our society eats! A bagel or cereal at breakfast, crackers, granola or muffin for a snack, followed by pizza, pasta, a sandwich or a wrap at mealtimes… Most bakers will add something called “vital wheat gluten” to strengthen dough, provide more elasticity and help bread rise, which is basically adding gluten to gluten. Is it any wonder then that the incidence of celiac has increased by more than 400% in the past 60 years? 

How do I know if gluten affects me?

The only real way to form an opinion is to try it out yourself! There are currently no tests for “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.” The best way is to try going gluten free for a month (and not by eating gluten-free junk foods), see how you feel and whether or not it affects you. A lot of people report a reduction in symptoms like gas, bloating, fatigue and cramps. For some with bigger medical issues, joint pain or mental health symptoms can improve.

While I think less gloop in the gut can be beneficial for everyone, it’s definitely worth a try for those who have bigger medical issues like IBS, Crohn’s, depression and arthritis. I am interested in seeing studies come out to determine if the lack of gluten is truly what makes people feel better, or if people are simply feeling better because of less wheat, less carbs (FODMAPs), or due to their effort to eat healthier overall! 

See more from Alina on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.

For further information on gluten, check out the following articles and resources with links to studies and a more thorough analysis and yes, they include both sides of the story.


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