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What is gluten and why should I care?

Gliadin, a component of gluten, is a protein that can cause digestive problems for those with celiac disease. (Illustration courtesy of Food Arts)

Gliadin, a component of gluten, is a protein that can cause digestive problems for those with celiac disease. (Illustration courtesy of Food Arts)

May is Celiac Awareness Month. Celiac disease is now so common that, to put it in real terms, if you have 266 Facebook friends, you likely know two people suffering from the ailment, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in Ambler, PA. But you are also likely to know a lot more people who are going gluten-free as an approach to lose weight. The resident Rustik dietician, Diana Chard, answers your questions on all things Celiac. 

Q: My friend went gluten-free and lost a bunch of weight. Should I go gluten-free to lose weight? What is gluten anyway?

A: Here’s the short version: Unless you have celiac disease, there is no reason to avoid gluten.

The longer (and more scientific) answer is that gluten is a protein composite formed from two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. It’s most commonly found in wheat, although it is present in several other grains as well, including rye, barley, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). Oats are naturally gluten-free, but because of cross-contamination, most oats available in grocery stores likely contain some gluten.

People with celiac disease must avoid gluten entirely. The consumption of gluten leads to the destruction of the lining of their large intestine, which can cause mal-absorption of a number of nutrients and may result in both acute and chronic illness.

Other people may be gluten-intolerant, in which case there is no destruction of the intestinal lining, but there may be similar symptoms.

There has been a lot of debate in the scientific world as to whether or not gluten-intolerance exists. Some scientists believe it to be an imaginary condition. Others say it may not be gluten but rather the result of Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAPS for short), which are certain types of carbohydrates. Some think it may be a reaction to chemicals, such as glyphosphate, used on wheat.

Regardless, if you experience digestive distress, or other symptoms after consuming particular foods, and you have tested negative for celiac disease, you may benefit from avoiding those foods. Try keeping a food diary to determine cause and effect and explore a low FODMAP diet with your dietitian.

1940s-gluten-image1The trend of gluten-free diets has benefitted those with celiac disease by vastly increasing the availability of gluten-free options in grocery stores and restaurants. However, it has also made many people blasé when it comes to responding to requests for gluten-free foods.

When someone has celiac disease they can’t have bread from a toaster that has been used to toast wheat bread. They can’t have baked goods that have been made in a kitchen promptly following the baking of non-gluten-free goodies. They can’t just pick the croutons out of a salad. They can’t have a beer with their gluten-free entrée. Just a small amount of gluten can make them extremely ill.

As for weight loss, you might lose weight if you go gluten-free. You might gain weight if you go gluten-free. It all depends on what foods you eat in place of the glutinous foods you were previously consuming. Many packaged, ready-to-eat gluten-free foods are actually higher in calories than their traditional glutinous counterparts. If you give up gluten and replace it with gluten-free cookies, breads, and chips, it’s unlikely that you’ll lose weight. However, if you go gluten-free and replace products containing processed flour with home-cooked whole foods, it’s possible that you may lose weight.

In the end, it’s not about the gluten; it’s about your overall diet.

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