What is Gluten? – An Overview

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What is Gluten?

Gluten (n.): A protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species like barley and rye.

That probably doesn’t tell you much, does it?

I am sure most of you have heard of gluten before, maybe even just in passing without giving an iota of thought about what it really is. Gluten is responsible for the elastic texture of dough, or in other words, the stretchiness of it. You know how the Italian chef tosses the dough into the air and it keeps getting bigger and bigger? Gluten at work.

In recent years, some (controversial) studies suggest our bodies may not tolerate and digest gluten as well as everyone had always assumed. Gluten has always been a major dietary mainstay in western civilization, not only to obtain the desired texture and elasticity in foods, but as an important nutritional protein. The studies showed that even people without a gluten issue like celiac disease may not digest gluten properly. Some experts feel this is due to gluten having been introduced relatively late in human development, so our bodies are still learning how to properly process it. While this issue is open for debate still, one is not: gluten does affect some people negatively, and those people (me included), must avoid it completely.

Gluten in Food

Gluten is found in foods like pizza, pasta, bread, and cake, just to name a few. I know, I know – all the best foods! Here is a list of popular foods that contain gluten and you should always avoid unless labeled “gluten free” (by no means exhaustive):

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • Couscous
  • Crackers
  • Beer
  • Gravy
  • Cookies
  • Cake
  • Muffins
  • Pastries
  • Croutons
  • Biscuits
  • Pancakes
  • Waffles

While not a comprehensive list by any means, it should give you a pretty good idea of the foods that gluten is found in.

Gluten is also found in many items that you would not expect to find it in. Here are some of those items that may contain “hidden gluten”:

  • Soups
  • Soy Sauce
  • Lunch meat
  • Bleu cheese
  • Baked beans
  • Imitation crab meat
  • Malt vinegar
  • Sushi
  • Licorice
  • Sausages
  • Instant coffee

Those items won’t always contain gluten, but they could, so always double check before eating them. You might be thinking, “I swear you just listed every food item I eat on a regular basis”. That’s OK, I am going to help you plan out a gluten free diet that is going to be BETTER than your current one. Oh, and more healthy, too.

Why Do Some People Have to Avoid Gluten?

The majority of people who go on a gluten-free diet do so because they find out they have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. The only current treatment for celiac disease is abstaining from gluten.

Other people, like myself, are gluten-intolerant, which means that eating gluten causes a myriad of health issues, such as digestive problems, migraines, and other things that no one wants to hear about. While not celiac, gluten affects people who are gluten-intolerant in many of the same ways, so remaining gluten-free is the only way we can be healthy and feel good.

There are many other reasons people go on a gluten-free diet:

  • They heard it will help them…. (lose weight/feel better/have more endurance/insert reason here).
  • To support a family member or significant other who has to be on the diet.
  • Because their favorite celebrity, like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, said they are on a gluten free diet.
  • …and dozens more

People that go on a gluten-free diet because they want to be like Lady Gaga make it extremely difficult for the people who have to be on the gluten free diet for health reasons to be taken seriously. I have had restaurant workers roll their eyes when I ask if something has gluten in it because they think I’m doing some fad diet like the South Beach diet. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are real, and more people will be turning to a gluten-free diet every day because they have to.

Celiac Disease

As I mentioned earlier, celiac disease (spelled “coeliac” in some countries) is an autoimmune disorder.  Currently, the condition is thought to affect a little less than 1% of the population in the United States – 1 in every 133 people – which means there are an estimated 3 million Americans living with celiac disease. However, a mind blowing 85% (estimated) of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. Crazy, right?!

Any combination of the following symptoms can occur in a person who has celiac disease. The severity of the symptoms can and will vary, also:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Skin rash
  • Canker sores
  • Weight loss and fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle cramps
  • Joint pain
  • Anemia
  • Irritability or depression

Yes, that list isn’t pleasant, but it needed to be posted! Been suffering from a few of these or most of these? Might be a good idea to ask your doctor to test for celiac disease if you haven’t done so. Unfortunately, these symptoms can also be present for other health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance, which helps explains why celiac disease sometimes gets misdiagnosed as something else. If you believe you might have celiac disease, don’t give up gluten just yet. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and get tested first. If you haven’t eaten gluten in awhile, the results of the test might not come back with high accuracy.

Once you know you have celiac disease, there is no reason to panic. Yes, your diet has to change dramatically, but the rest of your life will not.

People who suffer from celiac disease must be diligent in sticking to their gluten-free diets. Dining out becomes much more difficult, not only because many of the dishes contain gluten, but because of cross contamination, which we will cover in detail next section.

It has been stated (by Dr. Alessio Fasano) that 1 in 133 people in the United States suffer from celiac disease, although it might be even higher than that with the number of undiagnosed cases. If you have a first degree relative with the condition, the chances of you having celiac disease is 1 in 22.

The ONLY way to effectively control celiac disease is giving up gluten. That means if you have celiac disease, there are no cheat days – you are gluten free for life. While the disease is caused by a reaction to wheat proteins, it is not the same as a wheat allergy.

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy is, simply, an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat. Wheat allergies are often confused with celiac disease, but they are not the same thing. Like celiac disease, the only treatment for a wheat allergy is avoiding wheat/gluten. Many of the symptoms of a wheat allergy are the same as the symptoms of celiac disease. For a wheat allergy, they are (from Mayo Clinic):

  • Swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat
  • Hives, itchy rash or swelling of the skin
  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cramps, nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anaphylaxis (more on this right below)

For some people, a wheat allergy may cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis when a person is subjected to wheat. Anaphylaxis may cause (also from the Mayo Clinic):

  • Swelling or tightness of the throat
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Pale, blue skin color
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Fast heartbeat

Obviously if you experience this, seek immediate medical care.

Unlike celiac disease, though, a wheat allergy may not be a lifelong disorder. A large part of whether or not you outgrow it depends on when the allergy first appears. For young children, a wheat allergy usually develops during infancy or early toddlers years. Children often outgrow the allergy by the time they are three to five years old. Wheat allergies are much less common in adolescents and adults.

Since the symptoms of a wheat allergy mirror those of other conditions, it is important to see a doctor if you believe you might have this allergy. The doctor will be able to accurately diagnose your condition.

Gluten Intolerance/Sensitivity

There is no medical definition of gluten intolerance or sensitivity, but if you have unwanted health effects from eating gluten without celiac disease or a wheat allergy, then you probably suffer from it. Your beloved author of this course falls into this category of “highly sensitive to gluten”.

Even if you have been tested for celiac disease and it came back negative, if you are suffering from some of those symptoms in the chart in the celiac section, I HIGHLY recommend trying out a gluten-free diet for a month. Am I doctor? Absolutely not. But I have been through the whole ordeal, and I know how traumatic it can be to not know what is wrong with you, so maybe your body is gluten intolerant just like mine is. Your symptoms might completely disappear and you find yourself feeling better than you have in years. What do you have to lose?

I’ll often come across food with gluten that looks absolutely delicious – maybe I’m at a restaurant with my parents or my roommate is making something – and I’ll get that temptation in my head that says, “Look how good that looks! Just have a little bit!”. In my first year after discovering I was gluten intolerant I often would cheat, and always regret it. No matter how good the food looks, you HAVE to say no. The pleasure of eating the food only lasts a couple minutes, but the negative effects stemming from it will last for days. Not a good trade-off at all!

Other Personal Reasons

When it comes to different reasons why people are going gluten-free outside of the three major reasons I listed above, I have pretty much heard them all. If I had to guess the most popular reason, I would definitely say losing weight is the number one reason most people give for ditching the gluten.

In today’s world, it seems like there is a new celebrity going on a gluten free diet every week. Recently, Ryan Seacrest tweeted that he was going on a gluten free diet, only to say an hour later that he had already eaten a bagel and the diet was a failure. Don’t be a doofus like him; go gluten free or don’t.

Whatever reasons you have for going gluten-free, always take it seriously. Be diligent in sticking to the diet, and for the love of God, don’t have cheat days! When someone goes out to a restaurant and tells the restaurant employee they are gluten-free but can still eat “just a little bit of bread”, what do you think the employee is thinking? Yes, that’s right, he or she is thinking everyone who eats a gluten-free diet is a joke and that it isn’t a serious issue. So don’t even think about cutting back on gluten – it’s all or nothing, and you are in it for the long haul!

Move to Section 3: Gluten Free Basics: PPM and Cross Contamination