What is the deal with gluten? It wasn't until a few years ago that gluten has been showcased over and over again as something to be avoided. With a slew of so many gluten-free products now in the market, let's take a deeper dive into this issue and see if this is one protein we all need to avoid.
Before we dive into this oh-so-popular "gluten-free" fad we have been witnessing the rise of for the past decade, let's take a pause to clear out a few things. First of all, we have been eating gluten forever! Growing up in an Indian family, breaking bread is a daily ritual with rotis or naan bread. Wheat is such a staple in the Indian diet. Grains such as wheat, rye, and barley have been a staple part of the human diet for ages! There weren't issues before - why then now we are seeing so many industry experts and marketing around gluten being so bad for us?
Let's begin with the basics: What is Gluten?
Gluten is the main storage protein of wheat grains. It is a complex mixture of hundreds of related but distinct proteins, mainly gliadin and glutenin. Similar storage proteins exist as secalin in rye, hordein in barley, and avenins in oats and all these are collectively referred to as "gluten."(Source)
Why the sudden interest Gluten and going GF?
Gluten has been the topic of interest since the early 2000s. Research on gluten exploded and it wasn't until a signature study done by Dr. Alessio Fasano on Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) that really vilified gluten.
For the science enthusiasts:
Fasano showed that gluten stimulates the release of a protein called Zonulin. This protein has a specific biochemical pathway that loosens up cells in the gut lining, therefore increasing its permeability to foreign particles and triggering an immune response (Source). His study indicated that gluten does significant damage to the gut lining, increases interaction between the gut-immune interface, and leads to conditions such as leaky gut and autoimmunity (Source).
What was the effect of this emerging data?
This started a ripple effect. Initially, a gluten-free diet was prescribed to patients with Celiac disease. But with a significant amount of research on non-celiac gluten sensitivity and the appropriateness of GFD for everyone, a lot of industry experts started recommending a GFD for overall health. On the flip side, there was also an increase in a fad component to the popularity of GFD. In the past decade, there were claims that a gluten-free diet promotes weight loss, clear skin, and overall health. Although there may be truth to this, the issue with this is there were too many gluten-free products in the market that also had a plethora of other inflammatory ingredients that can cause way more damage to our health. "Gluten-Free" has become a shiny marketing buzzword that anything with a gluten-free label on it was deemed as a "clean/healthy" product. Do you see the problem with this?
“Gluten can cause damage to the gut lining, increase interaction between the gut-immune interface and leads to conditions such as leaky gut and autoimmunity.”
The question still remains - should you or should you not avoid gluten?
Before I answer that, we need to talk about Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). What is NCGS? Nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is the clinical term used to describe gastrointestinal (GI) and/or other "outside the gut" symptoms associated with gluten ingestion. This can manifest as bloating, cramps, constipation, headaches, brain fog, and fatigue. These symptoms typically go away when gluten is eliminated from the diet. The prevalence of NCGS is unknown and there is a call for more research to properly understand NCGS. Proper parameters are yet to be identified and there isn't enough research to show the best way to manage it. Basically, there is much that we do not know about it yet.
My take on gluten
If you have an allergy to gluten - by all means, you should avoid it. And based on what we know so far, there isn't any harm in cutting out gluten completely from your diet. However, this may not be a sustainable lifestyle for many, and replacing foods with unhealthy gluten-free versions is not the answer either. While there are many functional tests to show whether or not you are "sensitive" to gluten, the best way to find out if gluten is for you or not is through an elimination diet. This should be done under the supervision of a qualified health care professional. With the careful reintroduction of gluten after an elimination phase, you can figure out if gluten causes issues in your system or not. If it does, perhaps gluten is not for you.
My outlook on health has always been an 80/20 rule. That is 80% of the time, we nourish our body with clean, wholesome foods and 20% of the time, we indulge in yummy treats that may have gluten in them! Once in a while, I am completely ok with enjoying some warm parathas or naan bread with a side of curry and just indulge in things that make you happy! #soulfood .The motto here is Nourish and Lift the body and mind. To me, it is all about min-body balance. Wouldn't you agree?