Gluten has become the new dietary enemy as more people are eliminating wheat and grains from their diets, in pursuit of better health. There are millions of blogs, websites, books, articles, and health programs that are insisting that getting rid of gluten can make you healthier. Add to that all the celebrity endorsements and the experts that are saying that humans didn’t evolve to digest gluten.
Allegedly a gluten-free diet cures a wide range of conditions that go from depression to autism. However, some dietitians are concerned that people are taking it too far.
Wheat is now the most widely grown crop in the Western world. It’s a staple food but also the main source of gluten in our diet. Think pasta, cereal, beer, and pastry. Apparently wheat makes up about 20% of the calories we ingest. In Australia about 10% of the population is steering clear of gluten and restaurants have even changed their menus to cater to their clientele.
But what exactly is gluten? It’s a protein made up of two molecules: glutenin and gliadin. It has no flavor and very little nutritional value on its own. However as soon as water is added, its unique properties come to life: an elastic bond that makes dough sticky and flexible and that makes bread soft and fluffy.
For people with celiac disease, gluten is toxic to the immune system because it triggers an abnormal immune response and damages internal organs including the bowel and the nervous system. Symptoms of this disease include bloating, diarrhea, joint pain, and fatigue.
The damaging effects can first be felt in the small intestine where as soon as it enters, it’s recognized as foreign. This in turn triggers an immune reaction, which causes swelling. The good news is that it’s reversible once the disease is diagnosed and the diet is changed. The big question is why has there been an increase in cases of celiac? Some blame the modern bread-making process, while others blame the over-refining of wheat. Either way, do these studies suggest that everybody should give up gluten? And is gluten-free always healthier?