Understanding Gluten and the Importance of Whole Grains

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, barley and triticale. It acts as a natural glue to help foods hold together and maintain their shape, and often provides a chewy texture. It is also used in cosmetics and hair products. Around the world, gluten serves as a source of protein in foods prepared directly from grains containing it and also as an additive to foods that are otherwise low in protein.

Does Gluten Cause Health Problems?

Celiac Disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. In people with celiac disease, gluten causes inflammation of the small intestines and can cause severe health problems. Essentially, the body recognizes gluten as an enemy and attacks itself if an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten. It is important to note, the gluten does not cause the disease, rather it induces the negative reaction.

It is estimated that about one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease. It is essential for them to abstain from gluten, but what about the rest of us? Grocery store aisles are currently stocking more and more gluten-free options than ever before, which is beneficial for consumers with celiac disease, but has also furthered the notion that gluten-free is a healthier option.

Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University argues that is not the case. He noted, “Unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals and fiber.”

Risks of Eliminating Gluten from the Diet

Gluten itself does not contain any special nutrients, but the whole grains that contain gluten do. They provide the body with needed vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron and fiber. Eating a balanced diet, including whole grains that contain gluten, has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. There are a few whole grains that do not contain gluten, including amaranth, millet and quinoa, but they are less common and often more expensive than gluten-containing whole grains.

Because wheat is a staple in the American diet, going gluten free for many requires adopting a whole new diet: giving up most breads, crackers, cereals, pastas and a wide range of processed foods made with trace amounts of gluten. Completely changing diets without consulting a nutritionist can easily lead to nutritional deficiencies. A 2005 report from the American Dietetic Association cautioned that gluten-free products tend to be low in B-vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and fiber.

It is true that some people have lost weight on a gluten-free diet, but many experts indicate the weight loss is likely the result of eating fewer processed foods. In some cases, eating the gluten-free processed equivalents actually leads to weight gain. Many processed gluten-free options have added fat, sugar or sodium to make up for the lack of taste when gluten is not present.

Making healthy choices means digging through the buzz words and fad-diets and understanding the science of food production. It’s important to let education, rather than fear be our guide.