If you have recently been diagnosed with celiac disease or have considered going on a gluten-free diet then you need a thorough understanding of what gluten is. There are many myths being spread about what gluten is and the benefits of removing it from your diet, so we’re here to set the record straight!

First Thing’s First: What Exactly is Gluten?

To put it simply, gluten is a protein. It is mostly found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye, however it can also be found in certain hybrids of these grains. These ingredients are present in many common foods such as cereal, oats, bread, pasta, dressings, sauces, most processed foods, alcohol, and more. You might be wondering why someone would want to remove gluten from their diet – let’s find out!

What are the Reasons for Going Gluten-Free?

Celiac Disease

The most appropriate reason for you to begin a gluten-free diet is to control symptoms of the digestive condition known as celiac disease. If you have celiac disease and consume a food or beverage containing gluten your immune system responds by damaging the lining of your small intestine. This is a serious problem because it then prevents you from absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream, leading to many other health issues.

Celiac disease is a genetic condition, and symptoms range from abdominal pain to diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, dizziness, and other unpleasantries. Untreated, it can lead to other serious conditions such as diabetes and cancers, so it is important to talk to your doctor if you regularly experience any of these symptoms after eating certain foods. One thing to keep in mind: There are roughly 2 million Americans living with celiac disease – less than 1% of the U.S. population – so it is far less common than you might believe.

Gluten Sensitivity/Intolerance

Some people experience negative reactions when they consume gluten, however their doctors claim they do not meet the criteria for celiac disease. We call this a gluten sensitivity, or a gluten intolerance, because their bodies do not do a great job of processing gluten. When this is the case, the gluten-free diet can really make a difference!

Wheat sensitivity/allergy

If you believe you have a wheat sensitivity, this section is for you. Yes, gluten is found in wheat, however not all wheat allergies and sensitivities are caused by the protein gluten. In fact, there are many other aspects of wheat that can cause unwanted symptoms (wheezing, difficulty breathing, and other respiratory issues) if you have a wheat sensitivity or allergy. Just because a product displays a “gluten-free” label does not mean that it is free of all wheat – it is just free of the protein gluten. If you have a wheat allergy or sensitivity then you need to speak with a doctor about what foods are unsafe to consume rather than assume that the gluten-free diet is the best solution.

Perception of Being “Healthy”

Maybe you’ve noticed a “gluten-free” section in your local grocery store that gets larger each time you come in. While less than 1% of Americans require a gluten-free lifestyle, many have adopted the gluten-free diet because it is perceived as healthy. Do not make this decision without first consulting your doctor or nutritionist, however, because there are some key pieces of information to consider before beginning the gluten-free diet.

What are the Risks of Going Gluten-Free?

As previously stated, avoiding foods that contain gluten is a necessity if you have celiac disease. You must also take the time to understand the potential health issues associated with this diet.

The protein gluten is found in many types of foods and can be hard to avoid. Cutting out foods that contain gluten means that many common foods are now off limits, and extensively limiting your diet can result in vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. These deficiencies can catch up with you and lead to numerous health issues. It is extremely important to speak with your doctor or nutritionist to ensure you maintain a well-balanced diet and regularly consume an appropriate amount of key nutrients. Word to the wise: always rely on a doctor’s advice over information found online!

Where can I look for more information on gluten and the gluten-free diet?