What Does it Mean to be Gluten Free?

Gluten free options are available everywhere you look, which is a great thing for people that are intentionally avoiding gluten in their diet! With the popularity of gluten free foods rising, it’s important to know what gluten sensitivity is and who can potentially benefit from avoiding gluten all together.

What is gluten?

The best place to start might be breaking down what gluten is and why some people are more sensitive to it than others. “Gluten” is the general name given to proteins that are found in various types of wheat (including wheatberries, semolina, farro), rye and barely. Interestingly the Latin name for gluten is “glue” which describes it perfectly because gluten is what makes dough stretchy and resilient. A great way to see gluten in action is to take pizza dough and stretch it out. The gluten contained in the dough holds it together and gives it that elastic feel. Gluten is responsible for the fluffy texture of bread and allows it to hold its shape.

It’s fair to say that gluten is basically what makes bread so delicious, however some people are very sensitive to it and cannot digest it properly. In this case the body sees gluten as a toxin, causing immune cells to overreact and attack it. When any type of gluten-rich food is ingested, the body starts to attack the protein resulting in inflammation. Side effects can range from mild (fatigue, bloating, alternating constipation and diarrhea) to severe (unintentional weight loss, malnutrition, intestinal damage) as seen in the autoimmune disorder celiac disease.

Gluten sensitivity and Celiac Disease

Gluten sensitivity and Celiac Disease can present in similar ways, but they are two different conditions. Both involve the body reacting to gluten, however the underlying cause is different. In gluten sensitivity (which is much more common) the body is unable to properly digest gluten which can lead to gas, bloating, and fatigue. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where gluten causes an immune inflammation in the small intestine. Chronic inflammation of the small intestine can lead to malabsorption issues and nutritional deficiencies. It’s estimated that 1 in 133 people, or about 1% of the population, has celiac disease in the US.

Am I sensitive to gluten?

The best way to determine if you are sensitive to gluten is to keep track of how you feel after you eat it! Keeping a food diary of what you ate and any intestinal symptoms you feel after is a great way to keep track. You can also try to eliminate gluten from your diet for two weeks to see if that makes a difference. Always loop in your doctor if you do notice chronic symptoms.

Common foods that contain gluten

While bread, pasta, and baked goods are typically the common culprits, there are also a ton of other foods that you may not even realize contains gluten:

  • Granola
  • Regular Oats (look for gluten free!)
  • Cereal
  • Cookies & Crackers
  • Breading / Panko Bread Crumbs
  • Croutons
  • Flour Tortillas
  • Sauces (ketchup & soy sauce)
  • Pretzels
  • Malt extract (sometimes found in cereals)
  • Beer and any malt beverages

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