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It is becoming more popular to think, that avoiding gluten will help us live long and healthy. Well, it might even be true, that gluten itself doesn’t contain any special nutritional substances, but still there is something we need to know about going gluten-free. And that thing is, that if we’re not diagnosed with any specific disease connected with gluten ingestion it’s not only useless but also dangerous to give up on it.

Gluten – what is it

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, a common protein source and also is used as a processed food filler. We can find it in many kinds of foods and even drinks or medications — not just your bread and cookies where you should obviously expect it. It is used to make your yoghurt denser, fill your headache pill and you will sure find it in many alcoholic beverages, such as beer. What’s more surprising even beauty products, such as lip balms, may also have gluten in them too.

Whole grains, of which most kinds contain gluten (only a few exceptions, including amaranth, millet, and quinoa are far less common than gluten-containing grains), are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Gluten-free products, in contrary, are often made with refined grains, being low in nutrient including B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber.

Diet and health

Therefore, for gluten, just like every other time you decide to eliminate whole category of foods (like meat, carbohydrates), you have to change your whole diet. Otherwise there is a big risk of being sick from nutritional deficiencies. There is no point in taking that risk unless you have celiac disease or any kind gluten sensitivity. Not to mention, that most gluten-free alternatives, such as pasta and bread, are significantly more expensive than conventional ones.

Whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many others. Many researches suggests that a healthy balance of gluten can improve triglycerides and blood pressure. Gluten also supports healthy bacteria in the digestive system, which helps reduce inflammation. Cutting out gluten from your diet also means adding more fat and sugar. The fact is that, if you don't have celiac disease, a wheat allergy or a gluten sensitivity, you're unlikely to benefit from a gluten-free diet (and you might even loose).

The placebo effect

A decade ago, few of us had heard of gluten. Today, many are trying to avoid it. Recently it’s a paradox, that most people that reach for gluten-free products don’t have celiac disease or even higher sensitivity to gluten. What’s more surprising, some of them report feeling better. Usually not for long – they’re just eating less, and if for longer – it is believed to work as a placebo effect or better foods consciousness. Still, the story grows, and even celebrities recommend it as a diet.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products, which is not really easy to achieve without eating gluten. If you eliminate wheat from the diet (although I don’t know what would be your reason), make sure to replace it with a healthy, naturally gluten-free grain, such as quinoa or buckwheat. You should also balance the diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Lean meat and low-fat dairy products such as yogurt are also good for a gluten-free diet.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease (not to be confused with gluten allergy or hypersensitivity) is an autoimmune disorder of small intestine. It can occur in genetically predisposed people. Gluten ingestion for people affected with this disease leads to additional serious health problems – in a short (diarrhea, anemia, bone pain, and a severe skin rash) and long (cancer, diabetes and much more) term. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.

How can you know if you have celiac disease? The only way is to be tested. You can check your DNA for the gene that causes celiac disease, and if you do, test your blood for antibodies related to an abnormal immune response. If the blood test will also be positive, prepare to a biopsy to confirm inflammation in the lining of the small intestines.

Some people may be sensitive to gluten but don’t have outright celiac disease. These people may feel better on a diet with less gluten.

Samanta Makurat

Chemistry student at the University of Gdańsk, fascinated with molecular modeling. Nature enthusiast.

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