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The Gluten Free Diet: A Beginner's Guide

A gluten-free diet involves the exclusion from the diet of foods containing the protein gluten. Most studies examining the effects of a gluten-free diet have been done in patients with celiac disease, but problems with eating gluten-containing foods can also occur in another condition - gluten sensitivity. People with gluten intolerance should eliminate this protein completely, otherwise it can lead to discomfort and health problems. Below is a complete "guide" to a gluten-free diet, but first, let's figure out what gluten is.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Gluten means “glue” in Latin, which is why it is called “gluten”. It sticks flour grains together when mixed with water. This feature allows gluten to create a sticky "web" that helps baked goods rise and give them their characteristic texture.

Why is gluten bad for some people?

Most people can consume gluten-containing foods without any side effects, but those who suffer from celiac disease or hypersensitivity to this protein develop intolerance to it. People with other disorders, such as wheat allergy or acquired gluten sensitivity, should also avoid this protein. In addition to allergies, there are two reasons that can force a person to give up gluten.

Celiac disease

About 1% of the world's population suffers from celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly perceives gluten as a threat, which causes the immune system to respond by attacking the protein molecules. Unfortunately, this damages the intestinal wall, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies, digestive disorders, anemia, and an increased risk of developing dangerous diseases. People with celiac disease often experience severe stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, skin rashes, bloating, weight loss, anemia, fatigue, and depression. Interestingly, some sufferers do not experience gastrointestinal problems but instead experience other symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and anemia. This symptomatology can be inherent in other ailments, so celiac disease is quite difficult to diagnose.

Acquired sensitivity to gluten

According to available data, about 0.5-13% of people suffer from acquired gluten sensitivity. These people do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but they still experience discomfort after eating gluten. Symptoms of this condition are similar to those of celiac disease and include stomach pain, bloating, changes in bowel motility, eczema, or a rash. The scientific world cannot yet reach a consensus on the issue of acquired sensitivity to gluten: some experts say that such a condition exists, others believe that it is a figment of the imagination of patients. This theory was tested in one of the studies, which involved 35 people. Participants were given wheat flour and gluten-free flour at different times, without revealing which was which. As it turned out, two-thirds of the participants could not distinguish between types of flour, in fact, almost half of the subjects experienced worsening of symptoms after eating gluten-free flour. Other irritants can also cause similar symptoms, for example, FODMAPs - short-chain carbohydrates (oligosaccharides, disaccharides and monosaccharides and similar sugar alcohols - polyols), which are poorly and incompletely absorbed in the human small intestine and lead to increased gas formation.

However, there is evidence that the condition gluten sensitivity does exist. In any case, if there is a suspicion that discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract is associated with the use of gluten, it is better to consult a doctor.

What foods should be excluded from the diet?

Eliminating gluten completely from your diet can be challenging because the protein is found in so many ingredients. Main sources of gluten:

  • Wheat-based products such as wheat bran, wheat flour, durum wheat, kamut and spelled;

  • Barley;

  • Rye;

  • Triticale (a hybrid of rye and wheat);

  • Malt;

  • Brewer's yeast.

The following are foods that may contain gluten:

  • Bread. All varieties of wheat bread;

  • Pasta. All varieties of pasta and vermicelli made from wheat flour;

  • Kashi. All cereals, unless labeled "Gluten Free" on the package;

  • Bakery. Cakes, cookies, muffins, pizza, breadcrumbs and pastries, unless labeled "Gluten Free" on the package;

  • Snacks. Candies, cereal bars, crackers, convenience foods, roasted nuts, flavored chips and popcorn, pretzels;

  • Sauces. Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, hoisin sauce, marinades, salad dressings.

  • The drinks. Beer, flavored alcoholic drinks.

  • Other products. Couscous, broths (except those labeled "Gluten Free").

The best way to avoid gluten is to eat unprocessed, single-ingredient foods, and if you buy other products, always read the ingredients on the label. Oats do not contain gluten, however, protein particles can often be found in products from them due to cross-contamination if the product is produced in the same factory as wheat products.

Foods that can be consumed

There are many gluten-free products that will allow you to enjoy healthy and delicious meals. Products that do not contain gluten:

  • Meat and fish. All types of meat and fish, with the exception of products ready for instant cooking;

  • Eggs. All types of eggs are gluten-free;

  • Milk products. Plain dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheeses. However, flavored products may contain ingredients that include gluten, so read the label carefully before purchasing.

  • Fruits and vegetables. All fruits and vegetables are gluten free;

  • Cereals. Quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, corn, millet, amaranth, cassava, teff, and oats (labeled gluten-free);

  • Flour and starches. Potato, potato starch, corn starch, corn flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, almond flour, coconut flour, tapioca flour, rice flour, pea flour;

  • Nuts and seeds. All nuts and seeds;

  • Butter. All vegetable oils and butter;

  • Herbs and spices. All herbs and spices;

  • The drinks. Most drinks except beer (with the exception of gluten free).

If you are not sure if a product contains gluten, check the label on the package.

A gluten-free diet can be varied and include many healthy and delicious meals.

Health benefits of a gluten-free diet

A gluten-free diet has numerous benefits, especially for people suffering from celiac disease. Here are the main benefits of this diet:

A gluten-free diet can relieve digestive problems

Most people switch to a gluten-free diet due to various disruptions in the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms may include diarrhea or constipation, bloating, flatulence, fatigue, etc. Research has shown that eliminating gluten from the diet helps to normalize the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract in people suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. One study of 215 people found that switching to a gluten-free diet significantly reduced stomach pain, upset stomach, and nausea.

A gluten-free diet reduces inflammation in celiac patients

Inflammation is a natural process that helps the body heal infections. Sometimes inflammatory processes can become long-term and last for weeks, months or even years, turning into chronic inflammation, which can cause various health problems.

A number of studies have shown that in people with celiac disease, switching to a gluten-free diet can help reduce antibody levels (markers of inflammation) and repair damaged gut tissue caused by inflammation.

A gluten-free diet increases energy levels in the body

Patients with celiac disease often feel constantly tired or "foggy in the head." These symptoms are usually associated with nutritional deficiencies that result from damage to the intestines. For example, a lack of iron can lead to anemia, which is common in celiac disease.

Switching to a gluten-free diet can improve energy levels and relieve the symptoms listed above. In one study, only 22% of 1,031 participants experienced fatigue after switching to a gluten-free diet, compared with 66% at the start of the study.

A gluten-free diet helps you lose weight

It has been observed that a gluten-free diet helps to get rid of extra pounds. The reason is that with such a diet, various unhealthy foods that add unwanted calories are excluded from the diet, and fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins take their place. However, don't get carried away with processed "gluten-free" cakes, pastries, and snacks, as they will quickly add extra calories to your diet. Choose whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

Negative effects

Despite all the benefits, a gluten-free diet also has a number of disadvantages. For example:

Risk of nutritional deficiencies

People with celiac disease are at risk for a number of nutrient deficiencies, such as fiber, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamins A, D, E and K, zinc, etc. Some studies have shown that even when switching on a gluten-free diet, the risk may persist. This is because many people are more likely to prefer processed foods labeled gluten-free than fruits or vegetables. What's more, many "gluten-free" options are not fortified with B vitamins such as folic acid. Because fortified bread is a major source of B vitamins, gluten-free dieters may be at risk for deficiencies in these vitamins. This point is especially important for pregnant women suffering from celiac disease, since vitamin B is necessary for the normal development of the fetus.

Constipation

Constipation is one of the common side effects of a gluten-free diet. The reason is that such a diet requires the exclusion of fiber sources such as bread, bran and other wheat products. Fiber improves intestinal motility. In addition, many "gluten-free" versions of foods contain very little fiber, which can cause constipation. In order to avoid this unpleasant problem, you should eat more foods rich in fiber, such as fruits and vegetables, in particular broccoli, beans, lentils, Brussels sprouts and berries.

Cost

A gluten-free diet can take a big toll on your wallet if you're on a tight budget. Studies show that gluten-free products cost 2.5 times the price tags of their conventional counterparts. This is because gluten-free products are more expensive to produce. For example, such products are subjected to more stringent testing to avoid contamination with gluten particles.

If your budget is limited, try to eat whole, single-ingredient foods - they are cheaper.

A gluten-free diet can make social interaction more difficult

Many social situations involve eating, and for those on a gluten-free diet, this can be a problem. Although many restaurants offer gluten-free menus, there is always a risk of contamination. According to research, 21% of people with celiac disease avoid social events because they follow a gluten-free diet. However, celiac disease is not a reason to refuse communication, you just need to take care of preventive measures. For example, if you're dining out, call the restaurant ahead of time to find out if the restaurant offers gluten-free options or bring your own food to social events.

Useful hints:

Here are some useful tips for those who are following or intending to switch to a gluten-free diet:

Read labels on product packaging.

Make it a habit to read product labels. This way you can easily find gluten-free products.

Inform your friends.

If you tell your friends that you are on a gluten-free diet, they will try to choose places that offer gluten-free food.

Purchase a cookbook with gluten-free recipes.

Thus, you can diversify the menu, making it more creative and tasty.

Plan.

Before traveling abroad, do a little research and find out which cafes and restaurants offer gluten-free menus. Otherwise, make menus based on whole, single-ingredient foods such as lean meats, fruits, and vegetables.

Use separate kitchen utensils.

If your kitchen is shared by family or friends, have separate cooking equipment to prevent cross-contamination from gluten particles that can be left on knives and other kitchen tools.

Bring your own food.

If you're visiting friends or family, bring gluten-free foods like gluten-free bread and pasta with you.

People who do not suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity do not need to follow a gluten-free diet. Although such a diet has many health benefits, it limits the choice of healthy foods needed to maintain optimal functioning of the body.

Conclusion

Most people can consume gluten-containing foods without health risks, but people with celiac disease need to follow a gluten-free diet to avoid negative consequences. While a gluten-free diet is somewhat restrictive, it includes quite a few healthy and tasty foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. What's more, a gluten-free diet can provide health benefits, alleviate gastrointestinal symptoms, reduce inflammation, increase energy levels, and even promote weight loss.