As I was sitting at dinner with my parents the other night, I wondered at the strange texture of the pasta we were eating. I asked my father, the chef of our household, what kind of pasta it was, and he responded quinoa. Much as I approve of all the strange new pasta inventions, I was confused why he elected to cook quinoa pasta, when no one in our family has celiacs or a gluten intolerance.
His response of, “I am thinking of going gluten-free,” shocked me even more. My father, the health nut, is also a regular at the whole foods sandwich bar, and sandwiches, which are generally made with bread, tend to be chalk full of gluten (I realize I’m ignoring the option of gluten-free bread). Inspired by the recent video phenomenon where Jimmy Kimmel asks a group of people who follow a gluten-free lifestyle, “What is gluten.” I posed the question to both my father and mother. Their responses were less than shocking.
My father responded with a hint of sarcasm, “You know what Julie, I don’t know. I guess it’s in bread and pasta.” My mother piped up trying to be helpful, “It’s wheat!” Well, kind of, but what is gluten really? It’s in wheat, but it is not wheat. It’s in bread, but bread is not in itself gluten. I was more shocked by my mother, the public health expert’s, next response, “It’s a starch!” Well, that’s getting closer, but is not quite right either.
Gluten is not a starch, but is actually a composite of two proteins gliadin and glutenin which tends to be conjoined with starch in a few grass plants including wheat. It constitutes close to 80% of the protein found in wheat.
“A protein! How can protein be bad?”
Gluten in itself is not “bad”. It has just gotten a bad rep for the recent upsurge in incidence of gluten intolerance, and the related gluten-free fad.
Celiacs Versus Gluten Sensitivity
First, let us distinguish between celiacs and gluten sensitivity known as NCGS. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that tends to occur in those with the genetic predisposition. The enzyme transglutanimase modifies the protein gliadin causing the immune system to react with the small bowel tissue. This can damage the villi lining the small intestine, which are responsible for nutrient absorption, which is why the symptoms include severe anemia and weight loss.
NCGS is harder to test for. Symptoms can be similar to that of celiacs or less extreme including: gastrointestinal discomfort or IBS. Many approach by eliminating common allergens to discover intolerance. The elimination of food sources that contain gluten often relieves symptoms.
Is gluten even the culprit?
Recent studies have indicated that reduction of FODMAPs can be attributed to the decrease in gastrointestinal problems in people with NCGS (note, not in those with celiacs). FODMAPs are fermentable short chain carbohydrates, including lactose, galactans (found in legumes), and polyols (sugar alcohols). As FODMAPs are commonly found in things with gluten, people find their symptoms are relieved when they eliminate gluten and thus FODMAPs from their diet.
FODMAPs are not well-absorbed in the small intestines, and when they hit the large intestines they are fermented by bacteria. This causes gas and discomfort. While we are all susceptible to the effects of FODMAPs, people with IBS are particularly sensitive; therefore, reduction of foods that contain FODMAPs can be beneficial.
There are of course many that argue with this theory. For a good overview of the study on FODMAPs versus gluten read this.
Should You Eliminate Gluten from your Diet?
If you’re eliminating gluten in an effort to lose weight (hem hem manorexics in my family), I would not suggest it. If you are already a healthy eater, choosing complex over simple carbs, have good cholesterol, and few gastrointestinal issues, then I can’t see how cutting gluten out of your diet will benefit you. Yes cutting gluten will force you to skip out on restaurant bread and pasta to your benefit, but I would advise against many certified gluten-free foods which can be over processed and even less nutritious than your glutenous options. Corn flour is a common substitution, and proves less fibrous or nutritious than many of its glutenous alternatives.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of celiacs or NCGS, I would suggest getting tested for celiacs and then eliminating gluten or FODMAPs from your diet for a couple of weeks.
The point I’ll try to drive home is that before you choose to eliminate whatever food according to current fad, make an effort to understand what it is, and why it is thought to be the root of all digestive problems.