The Gluten Myth

Continuing the theme of last week’s article on food intolerance, today I’ll write about something similar, equally popular (if not more), but different enough to deserve an article of its own. I’m talking about gluten.

So let’s talk about gluten.

Many of you might already have a subconsciously negative reaction to the very mention of gluten, just as with aspartame and sugar.

But few know what gluten actually is.

What is gluten and why (most) people don’t need to worry about it

Do you avoid gluten? If you ask an average American, there’s a 30% chance you’ll get yes as an answer.

If you ask them what gluten is… The answer is mostly either wrong or „I don’t know“.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into the chemical structure of gluten, or „what happens in your body 34 minutes and 12 seconds after you eat a non-gluten-free croissant“.

Gluten is a protein – a protein fraction, to be exact – found in wheat, rye, and barley, and consequentially in products made of these grains.

And while most of the population (99%) has no trouble digesting it, 1% of people have a serious problem with gluten. This 1% has been dealt less than perfect cards in game of life, having an autoimmune disease called celiac disease, activated by gluten intake. For them, no gluten means no problem.

Gluten intolerance has recently become a popular subject, representing a state where gluten intake poses a problem, even when there is no celiac disease present. Scientists who called for the existence of this state have later on dismissed it, which is a wonderful demonstration of a fair and healthy science, where errors are admitted and corrected.

Is it a gluten to blame?

Indeed, any people have problems digesting grains. However, gluten doesn’t need to be the one to blame. One of the probable factors include fermenting oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols – FODMAP.

As it is often the case when looking for banal solutions and transferring responsibility, people blame a single food (or in this case compound, gluten) for autism, dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s, hyperactivity disorder and attention deficit, and even obesity. You know, the usual suspects.

And as it is even more often the case (not to say always), this causal link has no connection to reality. In other words, it’s completely made up.

Why did gluten-free diet become so popular?

Not for its health benefits.

Gluten is just another dietary demon used in the process of laymen’s aim for explanation, prevention, and treatment of various diseases and conditions. As I rarely omit to point out – diet is one of the few environmental factors we can actually influence, so it causes us to be too optimistic about relying on it to improve our health.

Also, we must be aware of financial benefits for those that serve lies about gluten. Gluten-free products are often way more expensive than the conventional ones, and food industry has profited from this early on. Like with all dietary myths.

However, some people really do feel better going gluten-free.

Why do people who stopped eating gluten feel better?

It’s easy to conclude that gluten was the problem if we see certain benefits after getting rid of it.

But bear in mind that it’s almost impossible to stop eating gluten in isolation – it’s almost always followed by a healthier diet and higher quality food items. That’s what brings the results, be it a reduced body weight or less problems with digestion.

What are the consequences of going gluten-free?

Gluten is not an essential ingredient of human diet. In other words, our body doesn’t need it to function properly. However, food – grains that have gluten – especially whole-wheat, are an important part of a healthy diet, providing us with dietary fiber, which is very low in modern societies – just like many phytonutrients associated with positive effects on health.

Yes, there are gluten-free substitutes, but they often have a lower nutritive value due to being processed.

Also, the price of these items is often much higher, making you invest less in some other component of your diet. If choosing to eat gluten-free products makes you eat less fruits and vegetables, I promise you, you won’t see any benefits.

Simple, but not simpler

We crave to find someone or something to blame for our dietary and health issues. However, more often than not, there isn’t that something or someone and excluding a certain item from your diet is usually pointless. You need to be careful not to condemn innocent food items. Because healthy diet needs diversity, and every exclusion reduces diversity.

Make sure that at least half of your grain intake is whole-wheat, and don’t feel guilty for enjoying an occasional croissant.