What Is a Gluten-Free Diet?


What is gluten?

Gluten is a group of proteins that are naturally present in the following grains: wheat (including spelt, kamut, farro and durum), bulgar, semolina, barley, triticale, rye and malt. It gives bread the ability to rise when baked and a chewy texture when consumed. Gluten is also used as an additive in various processed foods to enhance texture and retain moisture. The word “gluten” is derived from the Latin word for “glue,” because it provides a sticky consistency when flour is mixed with water.

What does a gluten-free diet treat?

Gluten sensitivity is commonly associated with the development of gastrointestinal symptoms after consuming foods or beverages containing gluten or gluten derivatives. However, some individuals develop additional reactions to gluten, including nerve pain. A health care professional should be consulted prior to making any major dietary changes. A gluten-free diet may be recommended for certain medical conditions, including the following:

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting up to 1% of people worldwide. It results from gluten damaging the lining of the small intestine, which prevents the absorption of nutrients from food. Celiac disease causes diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, bloating, weight loss, anemia, depression, and fatigue.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity impacts approximately 0.5-13% of people worldwide. While most symptoms are the same as celiac disease, the two differ in the fact that there is no damage to the tissue of the small intestine with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
  • Gluten ataxia is an autoimmune disorder caused by the body’s immune system attacking the nervous system when gluten is consumed. It causes neurological symptoms, such as issues with muscle control, balance, and coordination.
  • Wheat allergies result in the immune system mistaking gluten as a foreign object and creating an antibody. This prompts the immune system to respond in ways that can cause congestion, headaches, hives, irritation of the mouth or throat, or difficulty breathing. Wheat products containing gluten should be avoided for those with wheat allergies. In severe cases, anaphylaxis can occur.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children may be linked to gluten, although it is controversial. Currently, there is not enough research to confirm or refute this theory; however, many people believe that avoiding the gluten protein may improve certain symptoms of autism, such as speech or social behavior.

Health benefits of a gluten-free diet

Following a gluten-free diet and avoiding cross-contamination is a lifelong necessity for those with celiac disease. Health benefits include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Relief of digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, nausea, gas, or bloating
  • Reduced chronic inflammation associated with celiac disease
  • Improved gastrointestinal health
  • Boosted energy

Negative effects of a gluten-free diet

Although a gluten-free diet has several health benefits, negative effects may also occur. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Risk of nutritional deficiency, such as iron, fiber, calcium, vitamin B12, zinc, folate, and vitamins A, D, E and K
  • Constipation due to lack of fiber
  • Increased cost of gluten-free foods
  • Difficulty socializing when events are centered around food