Dr. David Katz, nutrition expert and author of The Truth About Food, helps us separate fact from fiction and get to know everyone’s favourite, commonly misunderstood protein: gluten.
Q: It seems like everything at the supermarket says “gluten free” on the label and lots of my friends have been avoiding gluten for their health. Should I cut out gluten too?
A: There’s a lot of pseudo-science and all sorts of wild health claims out there saying that gluten is a toxin and must be avoided. Thanks in large part to the internet, people have believed it. But, before we get to that, let’s start with the basics.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a complex protein that is present in wheat and barley and several other grains. It’s also found in foods that are made with those grains like pasta, bread, baked goods, flour tortillas, beer and so on.
About 10% of the population may have some degree of gluten sensitivity. Only about 1% of people are gluten intolerant or have Celiac disease – an autoimmune condition where gluten can damage the intestinal lining – and they absolutely must avoid gluten. There are also rare cases where individuals are allergic to wheat, and they must also steer clear of gluten.
While I don’t think most people need to avoid pasta, it’s actually a really good thing that awareness about this condition has grown. Doctors and patients alike are more tuned in. So, the issue is more likely to be raised and more people will get the treatment they need.
We also know that there are a lot of food allergies and food sensitivities out there, and we can’t always map out a specific immune response or symptom for each one, which is how a physician would usually diagnose a sensitivity or allergy. Diagnosing a gluten sensitivity can be quite tricky because unlike Celiac disease, this sensitivity won’t show up in a blood test.
Is gluten bad for you?
Now I don’t have the numbers, but I’d guess that the number of people who think they have a gluten sensitivity is much, much higher than the number of people who actually do. But the short answer is 90% of the population can absolutely eat gluten with no problems at all. So if you have no reason to cut out gluten – don’t.
Wholegrain foods are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. They also contain good amounts of dietary fibre. Gluten-free diets tend to be lower in fibre than diets that allow for gluten, and fibre is one of the major dietary deficiencies in the typical diet today.
However, if you think you may be sensitive to gluten, here’s what you should do:
Try an elimination diet
If you have experienced some gastrointestinal discomfort in the past and want to find out if gluten is the problem, the best way to find out is with an elimination diet. An elimination diet involves removing foods that contain gluten from your diet for a period of time, then reintroducing gluten and looking for symptoms of gluten sensitivity. If your symptoms go away and then return when gluten is added back to your diet, that’s really all the evidence you need.
Focus on nutritious alternatives
There is a booming industry of processed food manufacturers that market gluten-free food as healthy food. But just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. These heavily processed gluten-free foods often contain empty calories, additives and refined sugar.
If you are sensitive to gluten, look for nutritious foods that are naturally gluten-free. Try grains like spelt, brown and wild rice, quinoa and certified gluten-free oats. Snacks like popcorn and veggie-based products are also good alternatives.
Want to learn how to overcome barriers standing between you or your employees and a better diet? Dr. Katz explains how. Find out what’s eating you!
Dr. David Katz is a globally-recognised expert on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease. He also serves as a member of Virgin Pulse’s Science Advisory Board and as Founding Director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre. Katz is the founder of the True Health Initiative, a coalition of health experts from around the world, committed to educating on the proven principles of lifestyle as medicine. David Katz has received numerous awards for scholarly contributions to Public Health and was named one of the top nutrition experts for 2017 and 2018 by dietspotlight.com.