The Scoop on Gluten

In the last decade, gluten-free diets have surged in North America as information, whether warranted or false, slithered through the media. For many, gluten is still a mystery.  Allow us to shed some light on the topic:

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barely according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. It is commonly found in different products such as processed and packaged foods as well due to its binding properties, also known as the “glue” which holds foods together.

Celiac Disease
Initially gluten-diets were followed only by patients with celiac disease; an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the absorptive layer of the small intestine. This leads to the inability for the small intestine to absorb nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals which may cause malnourishments and illness. Unfortunately, there is no cure to for celiac disease yet. Patients with this disorder have to opt for a gluten-free diet in order to avoid the complications associated with gluten consumption.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Many Canadians that do not have celiac disease have chosen to follow a gluten-free diet, believing that they may have a disorder named non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This is merely a self-diagnosis and the small intestine of the patients would not be damaged by consumption of gluten. Yet they have reported symptoms that are similar to those described by celiac disease patients such as un-easy feeling, bloating, and abdominal pain.

Many that self-diagnose themselves with a gluten sensitivity adopt a diet accordingly. The only problem here is that these patients may truly have celiac disease. But due to a shift to a gluten free diet, their small intestine damages get resolved and then it would be very hard to diagnose if they truly have celiac disease.  As a result these patients might not get proper nutrition counselling and follow-ups by their physicians, further leading to other complications associated with the disorder that these patients may not know about. So what’s the take home message? Before initiating a gluten-free diet consult your physician to get the proper assessments to diagnose if you have celiac disease.

Sensitivity to other Components
Various studies exploring the high incidence of gluten sensitivity recently took place. Some results suggested that individuals may not tolerate other components of wheat, barley and rye rather than the gluten itself in these products. These grains have carbohydrates and proteins which may not be easily digested by some causing bloating, and abdominal pain. In addition, symptoms of “gluten intolerance” may be due to the increasing amount of pesticides on crops, the introduction of GMO’s in the last 15 years or even the imbalance of our gut micro-flora due to the increasing amount of antibacterial products that we use. So it may be the intolerance to these components rather than the gluten in these foods.

Should I follow a Gluten-Free Diet?
If you feel you may have a sensitivity to gluten, it would be a good idea to initially visit your physician and ask to be properly assessed for celiac disease while you are still following a gluten-containing diet to determine if you indeed have the disease. Currently, more research is needed around non-celiac gluten sensitivity and we can’t take a stand point on whether we should follow an adapted diet if we don’t have celiac disease. Furthermore, if you do have it or want to follow a gluten-free diet, the best bet is to be directed towards a registered dietitian that is specialized in gluten free diets. Since following a gluten-free diet is complicated, having the proper education from an expert will allow you to get all the nutrients required following this diet for a healthy body.

Remember, gluten-free does not mean grain-free. Grains have an important role in the diet!