Thrive Guide: What's The Problem With Gluten?

January 20, 2015
by Thrive Market
Thrive Guide: What's The Problem With Gluten?

For most of us, the smell of freshly baked pie crust or the flavor of a chewy, al dente pasta is nothing short of drool worthy. But to a small percentage of the population, these foods are synonymous with sickness and discomfort.

And it's all because of gluten.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance have run rampant in the past few years, and it seems nowadays that gluten is public enemy number one. Avoiding gluten has almost become trendy, although for people who have been diagnosed with either of these diseases, going gluten-free wasn't a decision taken lightly.

To understand what gluten-free means, first you need to understand what gluten is. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye that gives dough its elasticity. In doughs, gluten also traps the carbon-dioxide that ferments as the dough bakes and gives the bread volume.

Bread and pastries aren't the only foods that contains gluten, however — gluten is often used as a stabilizing agent in other foods like sauces, imitation meats, and ice cream. Other foods made from wheat or barley, such as beer and pasta, also contain gluten. Some medications even use gluten in their binding.

But why has gluten become a problem? After all, people have eaten bread for centuries — millennia, even. Scientists aren't sure why so many more people have suddenly become intolerant to this protein, but the research is clear: More and more people are becoming gluten-intolerant.

A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that celiac disease is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack the small intestine when you eat gluten. This damages the villi, the small finger-like projections in your intestine that help your body absorb nutrients.

Symptoms of celiac disease include indigestion, bloating, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, migraines, seizures and infertility. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and anemia. The only treatment for celiac disease is avoiding gluten.

About 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Celiac disease is hereditary, and people with a close relative who has the disease have a 1 in 10 risk of developing it.

Close to one-third of Americans, however, say they avoid gluten. Those who do not test positive for celiac disease but experience some of the symptoms may have a gluten sensitivity. The only way to be sure you have a gluten sensitivity is to cut gluten out of your diet and see if your symptoms go away.

Though there is no treatment for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the good news is that going gluten-free has become much easier. Living with celiac no longer means you have to give up your favorite baked goods or pasta dishes. You can now find everything from gluten-free flour to gluten-free pasta to gluten-free desserts.

Photo credit: M & K Frey via Flickr

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This article is related to: Gluten-Free, Health, Whole Grain

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5 Questions For Arielle Haspel of Be Well With Arielle

  • photinacook

    I think gluten-sensitivity is caused by glyphosate (Roundup). I never used to be gluten-sensitive, but now most grains are killed with glyphosate before harvesting in order to dry them out uniformly and make them easier to harvest with today's giant farm machines. Glyphosate kills some beneficial gut bacteria, which causes problems in the GI tract first and then all over the body.
    The solution is to go all organic and to learn how to ferment foods.

  • photinacook

    I circulated an initiative to label GMOs--but I am not convinced GMOs are the real issue. Most GMOs are engineered to produce or withstand poisons--herbicides or insecticides. Non-GMO grains are still killed with herbicides. Only organic is safe--and even organics are measurably polluted, just much less so.

  • Joann Miller

    I am all for non-GMO and organic. I do, however, feel the need to correct some mis-conceptions regarding gluten intolerance (of which I suffer).
    First, wheat is not GMOed. Yes, Monsanto did some development along that line about twenty years ago but when world found out about it and declared they would not purchase GMO wheat from the USA, Monsanto abandoned that research.
    Second, I was quite surprised to find research showing that the gluten content of wheat has been unchanged for the past hundred years and, further, that the grains found in ancient tombs show a higher gluten content.
    Third, most (95-97%) of the wheat harvested in the USA does not have Roundup applied.
    I believe that there are several factors contributing to the rise in gluten intolerance that we have seen in the past two or three decades and some of them could very well be the ingestion of GMO products as well as the use of Roundup and other chemicals. I wonder how large the factor is of the use of copious amounts of gluten in everything from bread to soup. In any case, one cannot go wrong choosing organic.