Are carbs the currently trending”bad food”? The new fat? The new sugar? Hashtag nogluten?
Because clearly carbs = gluten, ergo gluten = bad, right? Maybe.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Gluten-Free and Allergen-Free Expo in Dallas and it was certainly an eye-opening day. I volunteered for the earlier half of the day, assisting with getting the goodie bags set up (talk about a second workout!) and helping event-goers check in as they trickled (more like stampeded, at times) in to the exhibition hall. All I can say is that if graduate school fails, I may have a legitimate career as a front desk receptionist, ha.
The latter half of my day was essentially spent eating my way around the expo hall – no surprise there. Some sage wisdom for you: Go to these events on an empty stomach. From Vitamix to FeelGood Foods to Rhythm Snacks to Enjoy Life, there were vendors galore who practically lived the mantra of being gluten-free.
Glutenglutengluten. For an expo that was gluten-free, the word “gluten” was literally – and somewhat ironically – everywhere.
All this begs the question: What exactly is gluten? And why are we so terrified of it?
Let’s get a little nerdy for a little bit, shall we?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. Gluten can be found in many types of foods, even ones that would not be expected (1).
Okay, so it’s a protein that’s found in a variety of edible items and it acts like Elmer’s krazy glue. Seems easy enough, right?
It’s one of the most complex proteins out there and the term “gluten” is used to denote those proteins that give dough a viscoelastic property (i.e. Both viscous and elastic. Another example of this is honey) (2).
Gluten protein can be classified into two types: gliadin and glutenin proteins. There are a few distinctions between the two but let’s just focus on a few: gliadin proteins are much smaller and soluble versus their counterpart and gliadin amino acids (basically the structural building blocks that make up the Lego protein house) are predominantly glutamine and proline (3). What those are exactly doesn’t really matter, but let’s call them Q and P, for short (respectively).
What does all this have to do with two of the most common ailments related to gluten – Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?
Okay, I know this looks complicated but don’t freak out! I gotchu.
When the gliadin component of gluten is digested by those good ol’ enzymes in your stomach, it is broken down into even smaller components, roughly 33 units in size (hence the “33-mer” in the figure above). This then travels into the small intestine where it comes into contact with another enzyme – let’s call him ttG (tissue transglutaminase, for you science freaks out there). ttG then “deamidates” the 33-mer. This is just a fancy way of saying that it removes a certain group off those Qs of gliadin. Think of it like taking a hat off. Except in this case this minor change is actually more serious because that once-hidden bald spot is now extremely vulnerable and exposed. It is this modified form that is actually more susceptible to recognition by the immune system; ttG presents these deamidated regions to a sub-population of immune system cells (T cells), Lion King Circle of Life-style. It is the primary cause of an immune response in those with Celiac Disease (CD), causing chronic harm to the intestine and poor absorption of nutrients. In fact, left untreated, it can lead to a variety of conditions such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, gall bladder malfunction, and even nervous system disorders (1). It goes without saying that Celiac Disease is a serious and life-threatening disease that requires more rigorous treatment alongside, or even in lieu of, the strict but necessary dietary restrictions.
So what about those with gluten sensitivity (GS)? Unfortunately, not much is known about this form of intolerance to gluten. It is not as severe as CD in that the body does not mount an immune response to gliadin and therefore, the symptoms experienced are less excruciating and chronic. Having said that, the only form of treatment for either CD or GS is a preventative one – maintaining a gluten-free lifestyle.
Thankfully, there are events like the Gluten-Free Allergen-Free Expo that have plenty of advice, information, and novel products to help one do so.
Seems pretty peachy keen, right? It’s not always the case.
Bloating. Mood swings. Fatigue. Low energy levels. Abdominal pain. The list of symptoms for those who experience intolerance to gluten goes on and on. Surprisingly, however, those who frequently purchase gluten-free products do not actually have a sensitivity to the protein (5).
With the predominant gluten-free product-purchasing-population consisting of individuals who don’t quite know why they do so (as shown above), it does seem like the “bandwagoner” effect is at play. For those that attribute it to making a healthier choice, this in fact may not be so dubious as the elimination of gluten from their diet could actually dramatically improve one’s lifestyle, especially if the primary source of gluten was from refined carbs, if they were over-eating carbs (Cookie Monster-style) or they unaware of their sensitivity. Furthermore, this study consisted of only 1500 individuals, which is rather meager at best. Association studies are to be taken with a grain of salt until rigorous scientific research can actually be conducted.
So at the end of the day, what’s the take home message?
For those with Celiac Disease, gluten is off-limits. But for those with a sensitivity or intolerance:
Gluten is not the devil.
It can still be harmful, without proper knowledge or balanced consumption. I truly believe that as with anything, everything in moderation.
I personally tried an elimination diet where I cut out gluten for 1-2 months and slowly introduced it back into my diet. I did learn that I function and FEEL much better without it, but it doesn’t bother me too much unless I eat copious amounts. And of course, when I do eat gluten, I stick to the healthier alternatives out there: Whole wheat flour, sprouted multi-grain bread (better for digestion), etc.
So all I really want to say – and I suppose this is a rather long-winded way to get to it – is to listen to your body. It truly knows best.
A millenial would say “you do you”.
And in true blogger fashion, keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming gluten-free recipe!
- Food Microbiol. 2007 Apr;24(2):115-9. Epub 2006 Sep 7
- Lancet. 2003 Apr 12;361(9365):1290-2
- J Pediatr. 2016 Aug;175:206-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.04.014. Epub 2016 May 13.
Do you eat gluten-free or know anyone who leads a gluten-free lifestyle? What’s your/their reasoning for doing so? Comment below!