What’s Good About Gluten
Thinking about going gluten-free? New research suggests there are very good reasons to keep foods that are made with wheat and grains on your plate.
Diets that eliminate gluten are widely promoted and the number of products labeled as “gluten-free” continues to expand. We reached out to Dr. Alison Duncan, registered dietitian and professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, Ontario, for insight and she shared some interesting findings.
First of all, what should we all keep in mind regarding gluten in a healthy diet?
Dr. Duncan: “Gluten is a type of protein found in foods containing wheat, barley, rye and triticale. It is part of a healthy diet. If you do not have a diagnosed allergy (Celiac disease) or an intolerance to gluten, then gluten is part of your healthy diet.
“In fact, a recent 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal related gluten consumption to heart disease risk in 64,000 women and 45,000 men and concluded that not only did long-term gluten intake not increase the risk of heart disease but that avoiding gluten could increase that risk through reduced consumption of healthy whole grains.”
Read the study here.
So, let’s back up a bit. We hear a lot about gluten. What is it?
Dr. Duncan: Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in grains including all forms of wheat (e.g. bulgur, durum, semolina, spelt, farro), barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten functions in foods as a glue that holds foods together to maintain their shape. The term gluten is actually derived from the glue-like property of wet dough. The two main proteins in gluten are called gliadin and glutenin. During the bread making process, they form strands that strengthen the dough and create pockets that trap air (like a balloon) and allow bread to rise and have its appealing texture.
What is gluten’s role in the body?
Dr. Duncan: Gluten itself does not have a specific function in the body; rather its specific function plays out in foods. Gluten’s primary function in foods is to provide a structural mechanism to facilitate the bread making process and enable foods to hold their shape and provide texture.
If a person who has Celiac disease, what happens when they eat gluten?
Dr. Duncan: Celiac disease is an autoimmune and digestive disease in which a person cannot digest gluten. Celiac disease affects 0.7 to 1% of the population and people with Celiac disease must strictly avoid gluten. If someone with Celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system will respond by destroying the lining (villi) of the small intestine. The most common symptoms include bloating, constipation, headache, tiredness, skin rashes, depression, weight loss and foul-smelling feces. The damage to the villi in the small intestine will lead to problems with absorption and nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition can occur, no matter how much food is consumed.
Explore more about gluten and weight loss.
What is gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity?
Dr. Duncan: Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten sensitivity is when someone does not test positively for Celiac disease, but still reacts negatively to gluten. This condition is thought to affect 0.5 to 13% of the population, although an accurate prevalence is not known. If someone with gluten sensitivity eats gluten, symptoms can include diarrhea, stomach pain, tiredness, bloating and depression. However, the intestinal damage that is seen with Celiac disease does not occur. Less is clearly understood about gluten sensitivity and there is ongoing research on this condition.
For a person who has not been diagnosed with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, should they avoid gluten?
Dr. Duncan: No, there is no reason to avoid gluten without a diagnosed sensitivity or intolerance. In fact, avoiding gluten is not only very difficult to properly do – as anyone who has Celiac disease can attest to – it increases risk for nutrient deficiencies since many of the foods that contain gluten contain essential nutrients.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives bread and similar foods their texture and structure. For those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, consuming wheat can cause digestive and health problems. For others, there is no need to avoid gluten. In fact, eliminating gluten carries risks because it means missing important nutrients and the benefits of heart-healthy whole grains.