What is Gluten? A Dietitian Gives Us the Lowdown

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Whether you are perusing grocery labels or reading the latest media headlines, gluten is a word that often appears. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, my clients often ask whether going gluten-free will help them lose weight, boost energy and more. Here is what you should know about gluten and going gluten-free:

What is gluten?

Gluten simply describes the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It helps food maintain its shape and essentially acts as glue that holds it together. It can also be found in lesser-known sources such as granolas bars, lip balm, soy sauce, beer and soup.

Naturally Gluten-Free Foods

Who should avoid gluten?

About 1% of the US population has celiac disease, an autoimmune form of gluten intolerance. When gluten is ingested in affected individuals, the body amounts an immune response that attacks and damages the small intestine, a key part of the digestive tract. This can result in nutrient malabsorption (when the small intestine can’t absorb enough of certain nutrients or fluids), long term nutrient deficiencies and even anemia and osteoporosis. Symptoms may vary from person to person but usually involve diarrhea, abdominal pain, irritability and even depression. These individuals must avoid gluten-containing foods to maintain their nutrition and health.

Some individuals experience symptoms found in celiac disease but do not test positive for it. The term used to describe this condition is non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. When removing gluten from their diet, these individuals’ symptoms seem to subside.

Should you avoid gluten?

If you suspect you may be sensitive or intolerant, it is recommended that you get tested to rule out celiac disease. Otherwise there is not enough substantial evidence to recommend the elimination of gluten in healthy individuals. Gluten-containing whole grains are a staple in the American diet. The USDA dietary guidelines recommend that we make at least half our grains, whole. Whole grains contain a slew of beneficial nutrients such as fiber, which supports digestion and B vitamins, which support metabolism.

Individuals that eliminate whole food groups, such as grains, can run the risk of nutritional deficiencies if not monitored closely. However, it is possible to meet your nutrition needs through other whole food sources such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs and wild fish, for example. Having the guidance of a Registered Dietitian can help you achieve the right dietary balance for optimal health.

I am gluten-free, now what?

The good news is that most whole foods are naturally gluten-free. This includes the following:
• Fruit
• Vegetables
• Fish
• Meat
• Dairy
• Legumes
• Nuts, seeds

What is also important to note is that not all grains contain gluten. However, there are some naturally gluten-free grains that may contain gluten from cross-contact situations. The FDA ensures that the labeling of gluten-free means that these grains contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million). The following grains are naturally gluten-free:
• Rice
• Amaranth
• Millet
• Quinoa

Quinoa is a gluten-free grain

The consensus

Listening to your body and getting tested if you suspect you are gluten sensitive is key to maintaining optimum nutrition. In healthy individuals, however, it is not necessary to avoid gluten-containing foods such as whole grains, and may end up doing more harm than good in the long run.

– By Mia Syn, MS, RD

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