All of us are familiar with the term gluten but how many of us actually know what it is? From being an unknown part of Indian staple food to becoming a diet trend, gluten has become quite infamous in the past decade. So much so that FMCG giants are creating gluten-free alternatives for the masses now.
But even though there is this massive buzz around gluten, there’s little clarity on whether it is really harmful for us or not. So, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to dig through the research and break it down for you. In this article, we are going to throw some light on what gluten is and how it reacts with our body, to give you a final verdict on the matter. Let’s begin!
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein, made from a mixture of various proteins that are mainly found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and hybrid grains . It is the substance that allows flour dough to become sticky and stretchy when pulled, and to rise when baked, and the reason behind the spongy, chewy texture of breads .
So, where do things go wrong, then? Generally, they don’t. However, people who are sensitive to gluten experience an immune response to it, where their immune system does not recognise it as a protein, but instead sees it as a foreign invader - which is why it’s also considered an allergen [3,4].
What happens to people who are sensitive to gluten?
Gluten can be broken down in the gut of healthy individuals. However, digesting it is far more difficult for people who are genetically predisposed to having a gluten intolerance .
In the latter case, certain amino acids (proline and glutamine, specifically) and even peptides (short chains of amino acids) in gluten don't get broken down in the small intestine, but instead pass through it. In doing so, these comparatively large particles damage the intestinal lining [4,5].
This intestinal lining is meant to act as a barrier against the bacteria and toxins that come through our food (and only allow water and nutrients to enter the rest of the body). When damaged, though, it is unable to do so, in a condition often known as a 'leaky gut' [5,6].
In a leaky gut, the foreign invaders entering our body end up activating our immune system, which triggers a variety of symptoms (like bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal pain) that result in gluten-related conditions like a wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity [1,7,8].
So, should everyone go gluten-free?
Although a gluten-free diet is recommended for people with Celiac disease and certain digestive conditions (like non-celiac gluten sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), wheat allergy and gluten ataxia), it definitely is not for everyone. It's highly unlikely that gluten-tolerant individuals would benefit from a gluten-free diet [7,9].
Eliminating gluten from our diets may also eliminate some foods that are great for our health, like whole grains and soy, which provide us with essential vitamins and minerals. A study even found out that people (without a gluten intolerance) on a long-term gluten-free diet may increase their risk of cardiovascular issues [9,10].
Additionally, pursuing a gluten-free diet often reduces calcium, B-vitamins and fibre from our overall diet, while increasing the intake of fats and simple carbohydrates. That's because people switching to a gluten-free diet often reach for processed, gluten-free foods initially. For example, gluten-free bread would provide you mainly with fats and carbohydrates with lower protein content (given gluten, a significant protein, is removed from it) .
In fact, most of the gluten-free alternatives of baked goods have a higher sugar content and more calories as compared to their gluten-containing counterparts. Their continuous consumption may lead to health issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, amongst others [11,12,13].
Why is gluten-free diet becoming a trend?
There are a lot of myths around gluten consumption that have become a trend, but there simply isn’t enough scientific evidence to support them. Some of these myths are:
- Gluten is a root cause of many health issues, including cancer [14,15]
- Gluten-free diets promote weight loss because they are low-carb 
- A gluten-free diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease 
- A gluten-free diet helps improve gut health
On the contrary, the evidence actually contradicts many of these myths. This brings us to our next question -
What are the health benefits of gluten?
Gluten is most often associated with wheat and wheat-containing foods that are abundant in our food supply and provide us with many nutrients. Negative media attention on wheat and gluten has caused some people to doubt its place in a healthful diet - but unless advised by a professional, there’s no strong reason to avoid gluten.
Here’s what the evidence says about gluten:
- For individuals who are gluten tolerant, gluten containing foods may act as a prebiotic and feed the good bacteria in our gut, promoting gut health [16,17].
- Studies have reported that people who eat gluten may have a 13% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who eat fewer gluten-containing foods .
- Avoiding gluten may result in a significant reduction in the consumption of whole grains (and the nutrients that come with them), which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. What adds to this is a study showing no association between the long-term dietary intake of gluten and the risk of coronary heart disease .
- Researchers have found that people (both with and without celiac disease) who followed a gluten-free diet had higher blood levels of mercury, lead and cadmium (heavy metals) than those who consumed gluten in their diet .
Note: While there are certain benefits to consuming gluten, people with a gluten allergy or intolerance should definitely avoid it.
Healthy individuals who can tolerate and digest gluten should continue with their gluten-containing, normal diet. Those who have a gluten intolerance or allergy should avoid gluten in their diet while making sure that they add some extra protein and micronutrients to their diet from other sources.
Like we always say, understanding our body and its signals is the first step towards making healthy lifestyle choices, including our diet.
We hope this blog helped you understand how gluten works in our body and equipped you to make an informed decision. If you have any further questions, simply ask us in the comments section below. :)