Is Gluten Bad For You?

Recently a colleague asked me: “is gluten bad for you”? I know this question is stemming from the popularity of gluten-free diets. My guess is that many people do not know what exactly gluten is and when a gluten-free diet is actually appropriate. So to answer the question, no, gluten is not bad for you inherently, although it does make some people sick.

Gluten is a protein fraction found in wheat. Yes, gluten is actually a protein. Gluten itself is not a carb. Gluten is found in a carb, and wheat is a major staple carb source in most Americans’ diets multiple times per day. This is why sometimes people lose weight when they go gluten-free, because they are cutting out lots of starchy calories.

How Gluten May Make People Sick:

As I said, gluten can make some people sick. Gluten is the protein culprit that causes the devastating autoimmune response in the gut for people with Celiac disease. Our gut is lined with tiny villi that look like millions of fingers, and these villi contain important enzymes for digestion and also absorb all of the vital nutrients from food that our body needs to function. When someone with Celiac eats gluten via wheat, the gluten causes an immune reaction where the villi are destroyed. On a biopsy under a microscope, the villi will actually look flat and blunted.

gluten diet

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This causes significant symptoms, which vary by person, but can include nutritional deficiencies such as iron deficiency anemia, weight loss, growth stunting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Celiac disease is also genetic. Some people live with Celiac disease and the accompanying symptoms for years before getting diagnosed. There is more awareness now of Celiac disease, so more people are getting diagnosed. The gold standard of diagnosing Celiac is with a biopsy of intestinal villi by a gastroenterologist. The treatment is life-long strict avoidance of all gluten, and education is provided by a registered dietitian.

What is a Wheat Allergy:

Wheat allergy is one of the top 8 most common food allergies diagnosed in children. A wheat allergy is different than Celiac in that it is not a genetic, auto-immune mediated response, but rather an immune response where IgE antibodies react to wheat proteins as foreign antigens, and mount a response that produces symptoms. These can include eczema, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and more. A registered dietitian can help families navigate the difficult wheat-free diet in this case as well.

Finally, many people try a gluten-free diet because they suspect gluten or wheat intolerance. With a gluten intolerance, the immune system is not involved as with allergies or Celiac. But nevertheless, people find that consuming wheat products makes them sick in one way or another. When they stop eating wheat for a couple weeks, they notice many positive changes in their health and the way they feel. For some people this can mean fewer headaches, or less stomach aches, or more energy, or rashes that disappear, and so on.

To reinforce the point, gluten is not bad for you or your kids to eat, unless one of the above scenarios applies. Wheat should be eaten in moderation however, and I recommend rotating different types of grains into your family’s diet for well-rounded nutrition and to prevent over-exposure to one particular food. Some different grains to experiment with include quinoa, amaranth, rice, buckwheat, and millet.


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