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Should YOU Be Afraid Of Gluten? (Probably Not)

Updated on March 27, 2018
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Giannis is a medical student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

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Gluten-free pasta; gluten-free bread; gluten-free flour, ice cream, pizza. Hell, even gluten-free kale chips (this is not a joke- look it up.) Almost every modern supermarket seems to constantly bombard us with what used to be a very niche type of product in the past. And they have a perfectly good reason for that: in 2016, 3.1 million people in the US alone followed a gluten-free (GF) diet, with at least 72% of them not suffering from Celiacs, and that trend doesn’t look like stagnating anytime soon. And if that many people agree that avoiding gluten in your diet can greatly benefit your health, they have to be on to something, right? Right?

Wrong.

The mechanism behind both the substance itself and Celiac’s Disease (the autoimmune response to gluten that plaques approximately 1% of the world population) are very well-studied and understood today. And just by taking a brief look at the results of those studies, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that there is no reason for the average, perfectly healthy person to fear, or in any way think or care about, their daily intake of the dreaded g-word.

What IS That Damn Thing Anyways?

Long story short, gluten is a composite of a series of proteins found in wheat and most cereals called gliadins and glutenins, which tends to create extensive, durable networks that give wheat products their viscosity. When yeast is introduced to the mix, carbon dioxide bubbles created from the bacteria are trapped inside that thick starchy network, which takes a spongy shape that after heat treatment (read: baking), results into fresh, warm, fluffy, airy, crisp, ...mmmm…

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...where was I? Oh yeah. Bread. It results in bread.

Sounds harmless, right? How could this necessary fluffyfying component be harmful to us? And if you belong to 94% of the population, it actually cannot; your organism just breaks them down like any other proteins and sends them on their merry way. But the 1% of people that do suffer from Celiacs disease, or the remaining 5% that suffer from a condition called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”, a diet containing even tiny amounts of the stuff creates obvious problems.

For People With Celiacs, Gluten-Free Is A Necessity

Celiac is an autoimmune disorder caused by a series of genetic predispositions, which in a nutshell means that gluten is separated into gliadins and glutenins, but cannot further metabolise them; and the free gliadins trigger an immune response that damages the gastric villi- small mucus-lined tubes on the small intestine walls that are essential for proper digestion. The results? Malnutrition, bloating, abdominal cramps, anaemia, and much, much more. Celiac is also associated with other autoimmune diseases like diabetes, hepatitis and hypothyroidism.

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Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is harder to diagnose because there’s basically nothing known about it. This umbrella term basically includes cases where gluten consumption leads to the same symptoms as Celiac’s, but testing does not actually hint towards Celiacs.

For People Without Celiacs, Gluten-Free Is A Choice; And A Stupid One At That

I’m sure you think all that sounds horrible; and yes, it is. Those people really need to stay away from gluten whenever possible, and it’s great to know that these people now have a wider variety of GF goodies to choose from- even if that shift was done for all the wrong reasons. But for the average healthy individual who does not get severe indigestion every time they snack on a cracker, there is absolutely no benefit to avoiding normal products like a starchy devil. Quite the contrary, in fact: gluten is a very good source of fibre, which is needed for normal bowel function and lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels- and removing that source from your diet most likely means that you’re cutting down on a LOT of that good stuff. In the end, your only “health benefit” from GF diets is weight gain, lower insulin sensitivity, and possibly constipation.
(By the way, yes, people with Celiacs also suffer from this exact problem; and their diet also includes finding another high-density source of fibre.)

Celiacs Is NOT A Stealth Disease (Far From That)

Now, I just know some of you are pondering: could I possibly suffer from gluten sensitivity and not know it? Well, this is not a certified diagnosis site, so I cannot give you an answer. The only way to be properly diagnosed with Celiacs is a specialised blood test panel for gliadin antibodies, and a small intestine biopsy; and even if the results are negative, only your doctor probably can reliably tell if you’re suffering from non-celiac sensitivity or have been nocebo’d by mass hysteria. At any rate, the symptoms are always there, and they’re very visible. So chances are, if you’ve reached the age when you can be trusted with making your own dietary choices, and you’ve never noticed that eating bread makes you feel horrible, then you probably don’t have to go gluten-free.

TL;DR. What Am I Supposed To Keep From This?

If there’s a conclusion we can reach from all that, it is that no matter what all those countless health fad sites and stores try to sell you (either because they genuinely believe in their world or for their own monetary gain), the only reason you should ever buy GF is because your doctor told you to, or you’re making dinner for someone whose doctor told them to. For the same reason we don’t slander nuts in general because some people have nut allergies, and we don’t slander dairy in general because some people have lactose intolerance, maybe we should stop slandering gluten in general because some people have Celiacs.


PS: If you are genuinely concerned that you or one of your loved ones might suffer from Celiacs Disease, or are just curious about the disease and its full effects on the human body, feel free to check out the website of the Celiac Disease Foundation, which does a great job at raising awareness of the disorder and helping patients across the world handle it better, and helped us gather much of the information included in this article. Just be aware that, as the site itself warns, its Symptoms Checklist does NOT count as a professional diagnosis.


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