There is still a lot to be learned about the effects of gluten on the body. However, when looked at from the perspective of modern food processing techniques, one thing is certain: we should be mindful of what we eat.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a compound made up of two proteins, namely glutenin and gliadin. These two proteins occur naturally in cereal such as wheat and barley. When combined with water, they form an elastic bond. It’s what gives the dough its characteristic texture and stickiness. Glutenin is hydrosoluble, meaning it can dissolve in water, unlike gliadin, which is not. It is this latter component that triggers a negative reaction.
How Can It Affect Your Overall Health?
There are a number of ways in which gluten can affect your health. Your digestive system is generally the most vulnerable to the negative effects of this compound protein. The undigested gliadin can turn into a solid lump in your intestine. Your body reacts to it as it would towards any foreign object it’s trying to eliminate. This reaction can become very violent, and your intestines are going to become irritated as a result. In time, this irritation can even damage the inner lining of your intestines.
This severe reaction can lead to other long-term problems. Your body is going to have a harder time absorbing nutrients, and this may lead to a whole variety of conditions, ranging from anemia to osteoporosis, neurological problems, and the emergence of auto-immune diseases.
Some of these can be recognized as symptoms of celiac disease. However, there are cases in which this disease is asymptomatic, meaning that without proper testing, there is no way of knowing if you suffer from it until it’s too late. It is for this reason that some believe going on a gluten-free diet may be beneficial, even if you’re not displaying any of the symptoms.
However, a gluten-free diet may not necessarily be the key to a healthier body. If done improperly, gluten-free diets can actually hurt you. While it is important to be mindful of your food pallet, in this situation it is best to consult a medic before trying anything drastic.
Where Can You Find It?
Avoiding gluten-rich cereals, such as wheat may not be enough to limit the amount of gluten you are eating. There are a number of common ingredients that contain this protein which is not listed as such. The most common ones are malt, starch, and yeast. For a more detailed list of foods and other ingredients containing gluten, you can consult the Celiac Disease Foundation list. Make sure to check the label of any product before purchasing it. Often times, even trace amounts of gluten can be enough to trigger a reaction, depending on the severity of your condition.
Due to genetic modifications, some strains of wheat now contain a much higher amount of gluten than they once did. This means they also contain higher amounts of gliadin, making it much more likely that your digestive system is going to find it hard to process it.
Gluten helps the dough rise and gives bread its characteristic puffiness. Wheat starch is also used quite often in certain processed foods, either as a thickening agent or as a sweetener. Modern methods of processing wheat further contribute to its possible adverse effects on the body. It is first stripped of all its nutrients, and then “reassembled” after the process is complete. Thus, you may end up with flour that contains higher than normal amounts of gluten.
The process of making bread has also undergone some changes. In the past, the dough was left to rise overnight. Nowadays, through the addition of a number of chemicals, the dough can rise as fast as two hours. These chemicals can further irritate the bowels, making them even more sensitive to the naturally occurring gliadin.
Apart from the direct negative effects, gluten can also make it more difficult to process other foods. Because it can clog your intestines, too much gluten in your diet can lead to constipation.
Normally, the body takes what it needs from the foods you ingest and eliminates the waste. Frequently, this waste contains harmful substances. The more time it spends in your body, the more likely it is that you’re going to start absorbing these harmful substances.
Avoiding processed foods is not as difficult as it might seem, and it’s definitely going to benefit you, even if it’s not associated with a gluten-free diet.
As with any major dietary change, it is always best to consult with a medic you trust. If you are not diagnosed with celiac disease, you may consider limiting the amounts of gluten you ingest, but don’t avoid it altogether. And no matter how you decide to approach the issue, remember that nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet.
Sameer Ather is an MD, PhD, cardiologist based in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founder & CEO of XpertDox. He is passionate about educating people on how to maintain their health and make the best possible medical choices.
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