As a society we are more health-conscious than ever. The diet and fitness industry continues to grow exponentially and our understanding of the role food plays to overall health is at its highest. It’s hard to dive into the world of nutrition without getting splashed by the issue of gluten! Much like an iceberg, there’s more to it than meets the eye.Read on to find what gluten is, where it is found and the implications it could be having to your health.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein molecule found in most grains – such as wheat, barley and rye. When flour is mixed with water it is the gluten it contains which is responsible for creating a sticky, glue-like consistency. This is what gives baked goods their elasticity and chewy texture, a favourable function in the food industry. So, you will find gluten in more products than you may think, particularly processed foods.
Gluten-Free in the Food Industry
Just a decade ago gluten-free foods were virtually unheard of in regular supermarkets. Instead, they could be sought-out in specialist food stores or else prescribed for those with a medical condition warranting a gluten-free diet. These days, free-from products are one of the fastest growing trends in the food industry.
More and more of us are choosing to eliminate gluten from or diet, and manufacturers are quick to accommodate this. Going gluten-free is a lifestyle choice increasing in popularity for a range of consumers – from the healthy eaters to the ethical shoppers. What was once a small section on a shelf – a token ‘free-from range’ – is now an entire aisle in hypermarkets. This is so much so that foods which never contained gluten in the first place are being marketed as a gluten-free option!
As ever, food giants will do what they can within regulation to persuade us to part with our hard-earned cash. But eating gluten-free doesn’t have to be about buying expensive versions of products which would normally contain gluten. It should be about choosing foods which are naturally gluten-free. By eating a wholefood diet, avoiding processed foods and reading product labels – eliminating gluten from the diet can be quite straight-forward.
The Modern Diet and Gluten-Gluttony
Grains are the most widely grown crops in the world, they’re cheap to produce, energy dense and easy to store. But what may be a dream for the food industry could well be a nightmare for the gluten-sensitive. Modern hybrid grains are genetically modified to contain even higher levels of gluten than they would naturally. The result is a refined, processed and modified food that our bodies are not designed to digest.
Consuming such foods regularly can unleash a whole host of unpleasant symptoms, not just limited to gastrointestinal disturbances. Eliminating gluten altogether may be the most effective treatment.
The most severe sensitivity to gluten is coeliac disease, a digestive condition whereby the small intestine becomes inflamed and less able to absorb nutrients. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and increased risk of many diseases. Coeliac is not an allergy or an intolerance, but an autoimmune disease – which means that the body attacks itself when gluten is eaten, mistaking its own cells for foreign invaders. Only around 1% of the population are Coeliac.
Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity
Some people experience unpleasant side effects when they eat gluten even if they don’t have Coeliac disease – this is known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is becoming better recognised as an issue separate from Coeliac, it is thought that it effects ten times as many people worldwide. But it is something which is challenging to pin-down and diagnose.
Why is Gluten a Problem for some People?
Some people just cannot tolerate gluten in the diet and so react adversely when it is consumed. Unlike Coeliac disease which manifests as mainly gastro complaints (diarrhoea, bloating, wind, abdominal pain), gluten sensitivity can cause a whole host of symptoms throughout the body. These symptoms are widespread and often have nothing to do with digestion. The physiological cause of these symptoms is something which is widely debated. What we do know is, removing gluten from the diet can not only alleviate but cure symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity drives the production of inflammatory cytokines. This inflammation can be the root cause of both physical and mental illness. Symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity include headaches, fatigue, skin disorders, depression, anxiety and joint and muscle pain. Removing gluten from the diet reduces inflammation and lessens the severity of such symptoms.
Studies have shown that consuming high amounts of gluten with an undiagnosed sensitivity is promotive of antibody production associated with conditions such as ADHD, Autism, Type 1 Diabetes, Osteoporosis, Thyroid Dysfunction and Addison’s Disease. It is clear that the effects of gluten on the body go way beyond the small bowel.
Go with your Gut Feeling!
If you are experiencing symptoms when eating foods that contain gluten, then it is important to rule out Coeliac disease. There are specific blood tests which can identify Coeliac disease, as those who have it will produce specific antibodies when gluten is eaten. This would indicate an autoimmune response and so suggest Coeliac is the perpetrator rather than a gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
If Coeliac has been ruled out and you continue to suffer with gluten-aggravated symptoms, you may wish to discuss non-coeliac gluten sensitivity with a healthcare practitioner. This will help you to address the root cause of your symptoms, helping you to take an active role in improving your health – rather than passively accepting a diagnosis. Most health practitioners are not trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of gluten sensitivity, so be sure to consult an expert if your family doctor seems a bit unsure.
Adjusting your dietary intake is the most effective way to treat gluten sensitivity. When it comes to food choices, go with your gut – opt for fresh, unprocessed and grain-free foods, whilst avoiding processed and refined products. Doing so will eliminate most of the gluten from your diet and help to alleviate your symptoms.
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