What’s all the fuss about gluten?

by | Mar 3, 2023 | Health

We hear so much today about how gluten is bad for you and it seems there is an abundance of gluten-free products on the market. So, what is all the fuss about?

According to the Johns Hopkins website, gluten is a protein found in wheat plants, barley, and rye. Gluten is naturally occurring, but it can be extracted, concentrated, and added to food and other products to add protein, texture, and flavor. It also works as a binding agent to hold processed foods together and give them shape.

What does gluten do to your body?

Humans have digestive enzymes that help us break down food. Protease is the enzyme that helps our body process proteins, but it can’t completely break down gluten. Undigested gluten makes its way to the small intestine. Most people can handle undigested gluten with no problems. But in some people, gluten can trigger a severe autoimmune response or other unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhea.

An autoimmune response to gluten is called celiac disease. Celiac can damage the small intestine. Some people who don’t have celiac disease still seem to feel sick after eating foods that contain gluten. They may experience bloating, diarrhea, headaches, or skin rashes. This could be a reaction to poorly digested carbohydrates, not just gluten. These carbs, called FODMAPS, ferment in your gut. People with sensitive guts may experience discomfort from that fermentation, not necessarily from gluten.

Research suggests that some people could have small intestines that don’t work properly. The lining might be too permeable, allowing some undigested gluten, bacteria, or other substances to go through the lining and into the bloodstream, causing inflammation.

Is gluten bad for you?

Gluten isn’t inherently bad for most people. In fact, humans have consumed gluten for as long as people have been making bread. For centuries, foods with gluten have been providing people with protein, soluble fiber, and nutrients.

Gluten in itself, especially gluten found in whole grains, is not bad for healthy people whose bodies can tolerate it. However, grains like wheat are often stripped down to make processed foods such as snack crackers and potato chips. “These refined products have very little resemblance to the actual wheat plant, which is actually highly nutritious,” explains Rajagopal. “They tend to contain things like white rice flour and starches, but not whole grains.”

Many people who adopt a gluten-free diet but still eat processed foods find they continue to have weight gain, blood sugar swings, and other health issues. So it’s not the gluten in foods that are causing their health issues, but the sodium, sugar, and other additives in processed foods.

Who should avoid gluten?

According to Dr. Vineet Korrapati, a local gastroenterologist with Rowan Diagnostic Clinic, the main issues are with people who have the following:

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine in people who consume gluten.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance), which is gastrointestinal irritation caused by gluten in people who don’t have celiac disease.
  • Wheat allergy is an allergy to wheat, but not to all grains or to gluten itself.
  • Gluten ataxia, a rare neurological autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack parts of your brain in response to gluten.

Prior to 2016, I had noticed people who claimed to be “gluten-free” and who were very picky about their diet, especially when ordering food in restaurants. To be honest, many times I just thought they were intentionally being different to get attention. Yes, I had a bad attitude! But there is nothing better to give you your
“comeuppance” than for the same thing to happen to you. I was diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity that year. I had just lost my sister to stomach cancer, and since she was my third blood relative to have that diagnosis, Dr. Korrapati advised that I have a baseline endoscopy and colonoscopy. I was 58 at the time and had been having some GI distress but I had attributed it to a thyroid problem. Well, guess what? He did some biopsies during the procedure and it came back as gluten sensitivity. He advised that I cut gluten out of my diet. I was shocked.

What? Stop eating hot dog buns (hot dogs are my favorite), Krispy Kreme doughnuts, won-ton soup, birthday cake?????!!!!! I felt my world shriveling away. And forget about beer. I went through the five stages of grief, starting with denial. What if I ignore you, Dr. Korrapati, and continue to eat gluten? “That would put you at higher risk for colon cancer,” he said. Well, that’s not good.  “Get a grip”, I told myself.” It could be worse.” So began my journey of understanding gluten, where it is found, and what options I had to cope with such deprivation.

Fortunately, we live in an era when gluten sensitivity is becoming more prevalent and better understood. And following that is the food industry capitalizing on the need for gluten-free products. Today, many restaurants have gluten-free menus or gluten-free options, and grocery stores are doing a great job carrying gluten-free products. Food Lion has a gluten-free section that grows every day. I have learned that if you buy flour marketed as Gluten free 1:1 (Red Mills or Bobs is best) you can substitute it in many recipes and never know the difference. Aldi also carries a great deal of gluten-free products, and so does Harris Teeter although they are mingled in with non-gluten-free products and a little more challenging to find. Simply Good Natural Foods, located on Innes St in Salisbury has a large gluten-free section.  Fast food restaurants have joined in with Chick-Fil-A having a gluten-free bun to go with a grilled chicken breast (can’t get fried, because the batter has gluten in the flour). It is really delicious. Culvers also has gluten-free buns, so you can actually have a real hamburger! Many bakeries are getting in on the gluten-free wave, with Abigail’s Bakery (Main St, Salisbury) and Nothing Bundt Cake offering gluten-free desserts. Walmart even carries a Udi gluten-free lasagna in the frozen food section that, to quote my granddaughter, is “halfway decent!”

Olive Garden offers gluten-free pasta, but it is only the spaghetti noodles, although still good. Locally, Chef Santos has gluten-free pasta, and Gianni at La Cava can modify most entrees into gluten-free, especially if you let them know ahead. If you have to be “gluten-free” I promise you can ALWAYS find something to eat anywhere you go. It is frustrating when a restaurant only has salads as their gluten-free option, but wonderful to find gluten-free bread and pancakes available at local restaurants like The Palms Café on Innes St.  And Sweet Meadows makes ALL their soups gluten-free so they win me as a customer every time.

One sneaky element, however, is soy sauce. Who knew that soy sauce contains gluten? So, beware when eating Asian food. But the silver lining is that you can buy gluten-free soy sauce. Finding gluten-free versions of recipes is easy on the internet. I was even able to make gluten-free Thanksgiving dressing using my mother’s recipe but with gluten-free cornbread using a gluten-free self-rising cornmeal recipe I found.

If you need any gluten-free advice, hit me up at daricaldwell3@gmail.com and I’ll try to help you. Believe me, it is a journey!

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About The Author

Dari Caldwell

I was born and raised on the northern end of Kannapolis, NC and after college (UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University) I lived away from North Carolina for 12 years, during which I earned a doctorate in Health Care Administration. My career has been in healthcare for over 40 years and in addition to being a Registered Nurse, I have held healthcare executive positions in Los Angeles, California, New York, Concord, Charlotte, and finally completed my career as President of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, where I retired in 2020. I live in and love Rowan County and have enjoyed immersing myself in the community on various volunteer boards such as Rowan Cabarrus Community College, Rowan Chamber of Commerce, Rowan Economic Development, Novant Hospice Advisory, Healthy Rowan, and am now Board Chair for the Rowan Board of Health. In retirement, my husband David and I have enjoyed our hobby of vegetable gardening, and visiting our children. We have two sons – Trent, who is the head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lenoir Rhyne and is married to Brittany. They have 3 children including brand new twins! Our younger son Chris lives in Shreveport, Louisiana where he is an orthopedic surgery resident physician. We love sports, and also enjoy time at the lake, the beach, and with my 93 year old very spry mother!