Gluten has become a dirty word of sorts when it comes to food over the last few years. My patients ask me all the time about going gluten free, and if it’s something they should do. With all the talk of gluten free diets and products, the question arises of who should actually cut this protein from their daily nutrition. What is Gluten? I like to keep these blog posts informative but easy to follow, so it should come as no surprise that in order to discuss gluten, we first have to know what gluten actually is. In basic terms, gluten is a protein group that can be found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale. It acts as a glue for many foods, holding them together and helping support their structure. As you can tell from those 4 grains, gluten is naturally in a lot of the food we eat. Removing gluten from food that normally contains it has been a bit of a problem until recently. You probably have noticed that many of the foods that contain wheat or rye are now available in gluten-free forms. While gluten does help certain foods maintain their shape, alternative compounds are available now to provide this function. What’s So Bad About Gluten As I mentioned before, gluten has gotten a bit of a bad reputation over the last few years. In reality, most people have no problems with gluten. It isn’t inherently bad for you, and doesn’t lead to any major health problems for most people. Gluten isn’t like saturated fats or sugar that can cause problems for anyone in excess. Gluten actually only causes problems with people who have a true intolerance. Celiac Disease Celiac Disease is the most commonly known condition that requires a gluten-free diet. People suffereing from Celiac Disease have to follow a strict gluten-free diet. This hereditary disease causes an immune response when gluten is consumed. This is a serious disease, and the effects can be very troublesome. When gluten is consumed, an immune response attacks the small intestines, which in turn causes problems with nutrient absorption. Additionally, if untreated, Celiac Disease can result in further complications from other autoimmune diseases. Once diagnosed with Celiac Disease, a gluten-free diet is mandatory. Eating gluten will cause severe reactions, and can cause significant long-term health problems. Developing a gluten-free diet is important for those who suffer from Celiac Disease, and should be discussed with a doctor. 1 in 133 People Have Celiac Disease | Create infographics Gluten Intolerance While less serious than Celiac Disease, there is growing research that shows some people do have an intolerance to gluten that doesn’t cause an immune response. However, research is still ongoing, and isn’t totally conclusive. In fact, there is some evidence that people actually have an intolerance to other compounds that are usually present with gluten, and not actually the gluten itself. Why Does Cutting Gluten Help Me Feel Better? Many people who do not have Celiac Disease have started on a gluten-free diet for various reasons. I have heard many people say that they have gone gluten-free and feel significantly better physically. If they don’t have a gluten intolerance, why is that? Most likely it’s a result of just eating better all the way around. While gluten isn’t inherently bad for most people, many of the foods that contain gluten can be high in other compounds that aren’t great for our bodies. For example, someone who decides to avoid gluten may stop eating cupcakes or doughnuts, and replace them with fruit instead. Replacing something with high levels of fats and sugars with fruit will naturally help you feel physically better. Also, I have found that when someone decides to watch their gluten intake, they start paying attention to everything they eat. By keeping track of food intake, many people just start eating better naturally. Although there are instances where avoiding gluten can be helpful, I have noticed that many of the benefits from gluten-free eating come from just eating better foods and paying attention to nutrition in general. The Downside of Gluten Free If gluten isn’t a nutrient that our bodies must have, and there is research that going gluten-free may be helpful, what could go wrong with cutting it out of your diet? There are a few issues of concern when it comes to going gluten free. One such issue is that many gluten-free products don’t contain the other nutrients that their gluten brethren do. Many of the wheat based foods we eat contain other essential nutrients that our bodies need. In some cases, these foods could be a significant source of various vitamins and fiber. When cutting out gluten, it’s important to pay attention to the other nutrients your body needs. Giving up foods and products that contain gluten, could mean that you are creating deficiencies in other areas. If you don’t have a gluten intolerance, it could mean unnecessary extra work and effort to make sure that you are getting the nutrients you need. That isn’t to say that if you don’t have Celiac Disease or an intolerance that you can’t go gluten-free, you just have to be careful about not inadvertently cutting out other nutrients in the process. Just like gluten is not inherently bad for everyone, going gluten-free isn’t automatically a problem either. You may have a really well-rounded diet, and cutting foods that contain gluten might not cause an issues. But, it is something that you should be mindful of. So Should You Go Gluten Free? I may sound like a broken record, but I always recommend that you talk to your doctor before making a major diet change. It can be difficult to know that you have issues with gluten without speaking to your doctor and running tests. Talking to your doctor will help him or her understand your unique situation. If there is a concern that gluten may be causing problems, they can help you determine what, if any conditions you may have. Additionally, if you want to go gluten-free, your doctor will be able to help you with your nutrition plan to make sure that you get everything your body needs. Getting rid of gluten may cause unintentional issues, and your doctor can help you avoid them. Summary Gluten can cause serious issues for people with Celiac Disease, and to a lesser extent, people who have a sensitivity. However, gluten doesn’t cause problems for everyone, and can be part of a normal diet for many people. While gluten may not be directly causing problems, you may still want to look into a gluten-free diet. If you are contemplating a major diet change, I always recommend you talk to your doctor, they will be best suited to help you make a healthy and safe nutrition plan.