Ask the Experts

Gluten for Punishment

Should I consider a gluten-free diet?

We are constantly being told what to eat and what not to eat in an ever-changing cycle of dietary information. Knowing what is just a fad and what has any real science behind it can be challenging, so this question deserves thorough consideration. The current culinary trend is gluten-free so we will look into the facts behind the nutritional advice.

Gluten is a general term for the proteins found in wheat, rye, malt and barley. It can be broken down into two main proteins: glutenin and gliadin, the latter being responsible for most negative health issues. When flour and water are mixed, gluten forms a glue-like structure than binds the dough together giving it the familiar texture we find in breads.

The list of foods that contains gluten is long so you may want to pay attention if you really want to give all of these up. It can be found in all wheat- and barley-based products including all bread products, cakes, biscuits, alcohol, pasta, cereals, and some soups and sauces. Many manufacturers have introduced gluten-free brands, say beverage distributors of alcoholic drinks.

Gluten intolerance is the body’s inability to break down and digest the proteins found in the above foods. Most people can tolerate gluten just fine, but for some it can cause severe digestive discomfort. Wheat allergies are one cause, but extreme cases are triggered by Celiac disease which is an autoimmune disorder which causes the body to react to gluten by releasing an immune attack on the lower intestine.

Statistics have shown an increase in the disease over the years which currently affects approximately 1% of the U.S. population. Over time this disease can cause damage to the intestinal tract and effect nutrient absorption. Another possible risk is intestinal cancer, warn cancer care experts at a Maryland facility.

There are a few benefits to a gluten-free diet but these are mainly experienced by people with gluten intolerance. In this case, reducing gluten will alleviate the digestive discomfort and start the path to intestinal repair. Eating less processed food is always a good thing, but eliminating gluten all together, unless necessary, may not be the answer.

Many people are going gluten-free without really knowing why. Nutritional fads are nothing new and there are a lot of uninformed people out there that will jump on a dietary bandwagon without much thought. Studies have shown that a gluten-free diet is not necessarily more healthful and can be harmful, often leading to weight gain. This is because many gluten-free products contain higher levels of sugar, sodium and fats. You may be losing out on vital nutrients found in enriched wheat products such as iron and folic acid, which are not present in gluten-free foods. A reduced fiber diet could lead to other digestive issues and lower your overall nutrient intake.

Going gluten-free should be considered as a treatment, not a trend. Medical research has revealed that over half of the people on gluten-free diets are not actually gluten intolerant. There are other issues causing their digestive despairs so the bottom line is to go and see a doctor and get checked out.

Diets, like clothes, should be tailored to you… Joan Rivers. 

Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times.