You’ve probably heard people mention that they’re on a “gluten-free diet” or have seen gluten-free menu items at various restaurants, possibly piquing your interest on whether it’s something that could benefit your health and waistline. Let’s discuss what gluten is, how it affects the body, and whether going gluten-free is a good option for you.

What is gluten and in what foods do you find it?

Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye, and it’s the only known protein found in our food that is completely indigestible. Known as “gluten grains”, they can be found everywhere in our food supply, in part because it tastes good (think bagels, pizza, pastries, etc).  Gluten is also in many foods you wouldn’t expect, and it can be extremely difficult to avoid. Most people associate gluten with just bread and pastas, however, it is also an ingredient in a majority of processed food products. Below are some unexpected foods that contain gluten:

  • Spices/spice mixtures
  • Salad dressings
  • Condiments
  • Frozen dinners
  • Various prepared side dishes
  • Some yogurt and other milk products
  • Beer
  • Soups
  • Candy
  • Cookies

Why eat gluten-free?

Most people can eat gluten without experiencing side effects. As previously mentioned, gluten is indigestible, and in very small cases the body mistakes gluten as a threat. Known as celiac disease, this autoimmune disease causes the body to attack gluten proteins, which can cause nutrient deficiencies, severe digestive problems, anemia and the increased risk of other diseases. 

Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Severe stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Exhaustion
  • Depression

Celiac only affects one percent of the worldwide population, but certainly more than one percent of people follow gluten-free diets – why? Many people who are classified as having non-celiac gluten sensitivity do not test positive for celiac disease. However, they still feel uncomfortable after eating gluten. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to those of celiac disease.  Interestingly, experts do not agree of the actual existence of gluten sensitivity – and thus far, studies have varied results. At the end of the day, if you think gluten is making you uncomfortable, it’s best to let your doctor know.