Posted on 01 August, 2016

What is Gluten?

By Jacob Andreae in Lifestyle, Nutrition What is Gluten?

[Image source: Elias Gayles]

“Just eliminate gluten and see what happens." That’s what a naturopath said to me when I presented to him with fatigue. At the time I was like, “What is gluten?” I went straight home and looked it up. I was intrigued as to why the naturopath suggested I give it up without even testing for an intolerance.

I went home and read article after article on gluten. I was shocked at how many articles explained how bad it was. With the words of the naturopath still ringing in my ears, I decided to eliminate it from my diet for one week to see what would happen. I’d been speaking to many people about nutrition and I decided to only eat vegetables with meat, fish and chicken for that week. I won’t go into detail about that week because I wrote about that in my ebook, which you can download free from my website.

The next couple of years was a steep learning curve about nutrition and in particular, gluten. I paid close attention to how I felt after every single thing I ate and drank, as well as my burping, flatulence and defecation. It might sound gross but it helped me discover what my body could handle ingesting and what it couldn’t.

As I became more educated on gluten, I discovered that the most serious form of gluten sensitivity, coeliac disease, affects one in one hundred people. And milder forms of gluten sensitivity are even more common.

A Swedish study of almost 30,000 people from 1969 to 2008 examined deaths in three groups (i):
- People with coeliac disease
- People with inflammation of their intestine but not full coeliac disease
- People with latent coeliac disease

The findings were startling. There was a 39% increased risk of death in those with coeliac disease, 72% increased risk in those with inflammation of their intestine but not full coeliac disease, and 35% increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no coeliac disease.

A U.S. study comparing the blood of almost 10,000 people from 50 years ago found that the incidence of full-blown coeliac disease has increased by 400% (ii).

A review in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the following diseases can be caused by gluten: irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis, cancer, anaemia, fatigue, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Gluten is also linked to anxiety, depression, autism, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy and neuropathy.

So, what is Gluten?

Gluten is found in the grain’s endosperm, which is a type of tissue produced in seeds that are ground to make flour. Gluten nourishes plant embryos during germination. It is commonly used in baking because it affects the elasticity of dough, binding it, puffing it up, and giving it a chewy texture.

By definition, gluten is defined as the family of proteins found within the seeds of grass. Many health professionals state that gluten is found in grain’s such as wheat, rye and barley. It’s stated that rice, sorghum, millet, corn and oats are gluten-free and okay to eat for people with a gluten intolerance. However, there’s no such thing as a gluten free grain due to this definition because they are a grass. There’s in fact, over one thousand types of gluten and over four hundred forms of gluten in wheat alone. One study showed that ninety two percent of people going on a gluten-free diet had persistent inflammation because they were eating these other forms of gluten.

The two main proteins in gluten are glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin was discovered in 1952. The current definition of gluten is based on this discovery. Currently, food is only considered to contain gluten if it contains this one type of gluten, gliadin. If food doesn’t contain gliadin, it can be considered gluten-free on food packaging. 

Some people suggest that going gluten-free when you’re not gluten intolerant is not healthy because you can put on weight and become deficient in nutrients. This belief is based on substituting foods which contain gluten, with the gluten-free alternative, for example gluten-free breads, cereals and pastas. Some gluten-free products include additional sugar to make them tastier, causing you to put on weight. Some also lack vitamins and minerals which are found in whole grains, leading you to become deficient in some nutrients. Instead of substituting gluten for gluten-free alternatives, substitute gluten for more real food - fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish and nuts.

Do you need to follow a gluten-free diet?

If you have coeliac disease, or any level of gluten intolerance, then yes. But if you don’t have any level whatsoever of gluten intolerance, research suggests no. But with one in one hundred people affected by coeliac disease, and an even greater number intolerant to gluten, along with the plethora of diseases and premature death that arise from gluten intolerance, I suggest it’s worth speaking with a dietitian and trying an elimination/reintegration diet. Eliminate all sources of gluten (including those that are hidden and not considered to contain gluten according to the current definition) and as you slowly reintegrate them into your diet, pay close attention to the way they make you feel, as well as how they cause your body to respond in regards to burping, flatulence and defecating.

Since starting this journey of gluten discovery, which I consider a real-food discovery, our family has been eating much more real food. Our repertoire of whole-food recipes has increased and our taste buds have enjoyed the change. I’ve personally discovered how satiating real food really is and how much energy it provides. I still love the taste of my grandmother's Christmas pudding, but that’s just once a year.

What else would you like to know about gluten?

For more information on gluten, check out this episode of The School of Greatness podcast with Dr Peter Osborne on the Honest Truth About Gluten and Your Health.

(i) Small-intestinal histopathology and mortality risk in coeliac disease.

(ii) Increased prevalence and mortality in undiagnosed coeliac disease.

(iii) New England Journal of Medicine

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About Jacob Andreae

About Jacob Andreae

I write and speak about Fitness, Nutrition and Mindset. 

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What is Gluten?A quick start guide to losing weight and staying on track. Learn the strategies I use to eat and move for optimal health. Includes worksheets to enhance your motivation, commitment and discipline, along with a sample eating plan and exercise program.