As low-carb, keto, and paleo diets continue to rise in popularity, you may be wondering if you too should swipe left on the bread basket at dinner. Gluten-free diets are becoming more popular in the US, with more grocery stores carrying gluten-free products and restaurants adapting to gluten-free requests than ever before. It’s estimated that 30% of all Americans avoid gluten, but only a small percentage of those people are diagnosed with Celiac disease or a severe gluten allergy. So why is everyone hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon?
The answer? It’s kind of complicated. Gluten is a mix of two proteins found in bread and any food products that contain wheat, such as cereal, pasta and packaged foods. Those proteins can be difficult for people to digest, and are thought to aggravate or even cause some health issues.
Some people need to avoid gluten to save their lives, while others simply feel better and believe they are healthier without it. Whether or not you should eat gluten is definitely not black or white, which is why I’m diving into the top common reasons people avoid it below. If you’re considering cutting out gluten, here’s what you need to know about why people avoid it, and what effects nutrition science and health pros say it can have on your health.
Rise in popularity of Keto, Paleo and low-carb diets
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, then you’ve probably noticed that the low-carb diet trend is booming. And while science and health pros still debate about whether it’s really healthy for you to cut out carbs, people are turning to low-carb style of eating with the aim to lose weight, feel more energized or to manage certain diseases or conditions (among other reasons).
Some of the most popular diets, including the Keto diet and the Paleo diet, require you to cut out bread and gluten. For the Keto diet, you cut bread and wheat products, mainly because they are high in carbs; the goal of the Keto diet is to restrict enough carbs and consume more fat so you’re body goes into a ketogenic state (where you body runs on fat for energy). The Paleo diet restricts bread and all grains (including gluten-containing grains), since the aim of the diet is to reduce your consumption of processed foods and stick to foods in their whole form (i.e. mainly veggies, fruit, meat, eggs, nuts).
Health concerns about gluten
There’s a lot of confusion around whether everyone should avoid gluten or if it’s just for those with diagnosed conditions (more on that later) to worry about. The main argument surrounding problems with gluten is that it contains proteins that are resistant to digestion in humans. And while you may think this is not that big of a deal (besides causing come bloating or discomfort), many experts disagree.
According to some, when this happens, it can cause “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability, where molecules are able to cross out of your small intestine and into your body (which is not supposed to happen when you digest food), triggering an autoimmune response. Science shows that this happens to people with celiac disease, although the evidence that it can happen to nonceliac people is only confirmed in test-tube studies.
And the proteins in gluten aren’t the only issue — gluten found in wheat also contains Amylase‐trypsin inhibitors, which are shown to cause inflammation in the digestive system. Wheat germ agglutinin is a type of lectin found in wheat that is also linked to autoimmune issues and inflammation.
Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where consuming gluten causes damage to the small intestine, resulting in painful and uncomfortable digestive distress. The small intestine is responsible for helping the body absorb nutrients. When it’s damaged, that means you’re not getting what you need from the food you eat, which can cause a lot of health problems. When celiac disease is undiagnosed or left untreated, it can lead to serious health issues like diabetes, multiple sclerosis or GI cancer.
Even if you don’t have a severe wheat or gluten allergy or celiac disease, it’s possible to develop a sensitivity to gluten that causes symptoms like headache, fatigue, “brain fog,” bloating or gas. This is commonly reported and it’s estimated that 18 million people in the US report having a gluten sensitivity.
If you suspect you have a gluten sensitivity, one way to know is to try removing it from your diet for a period of time. Then when you reintroduce it and notice symptoms, then you may be able to pinpoint if it’s the culprit behind a headache or stomach ache you experience.
Whether or not you avoid gluten is a personal preference. Some people simply avoid it because they follow health experts who recommend cutting it out (which is totally fine). If you don’t think you have any issues with it and aren’t concerned, you don’t have to follow a trend simply because other people do. And if the evidence above concerns you, then taking out gluten is a simple way to avoid the health risks some claim are associated with it.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.