Gluten is currently the black sheep of the food world, probably an extension of the distrust of carbohydrates. Fad diets like to find a "Big Bad" to blame for all our nutrition ills. In the early 90s it was fat, then Dr. Atkins came along and fat was good again, but carbohydrates were bad. I still hear people trashing carbohydrates, but usually it's more specifically gluten.
But what is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It gives the dough elasticity and helps it rise, it's also responsible for the chewy texture. Seems pretty innocent, right? Who doesn't love chewy, warm bread? Mmmm.
Well, for most people gluten is not a problem. The gluten free fad came from a greater public awareness of Celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine causing inflammation, malabsorption of nutrients, and damage to the part ofvthe small intestine that is responsible for nutrient absorption. For people with Celiac disease eating gluten can cause lasting damage and malnutrition.
There's also been an increasing amount of talk about something called "gluten sensitivity" which is something that's not an allergy and not an autoimmune response to eating gluten. It can cause symptoms similar or Celiac disease, or non-intestinal symptoms. The research on gluten sensitivity is still in the very early stages. There's even some studies that suggest gluten sensitivity might not be about gluten at all, but actually a sensitivity to fructans, a carbohydrate in some of the same things gluten is in (but not all).
If you think you might have gluten sensitivity, or any food sensitivity the best way to determine if the symptoms you're experiencing are a result of something your eating is to keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat in the day, as well as the time you eat it. Then write down whenever you feel your symptoms and what time they start. Then try to get an idea of what could be the cause. Symptoms that occur in the intestines (bloating, gas, diarrhea) usually take 2-3 hours to appear after the culprit is ingested, while stomach symptoms (nausea, burping, vomitting) can be almost immediate. Then start taking suspected foods out one at a time and see if your symptoms disappear.
If you get overwhelmed or need guidance interpreting your food diary, that's what I'm here for! The most important thing, whether you have Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or any food sensitivity, is to make sure your diet it well balanced and provides you with all the nutrients you need.
Taryn is a Los Angeles based Registered Dietitian who's passionate about helping you be your healthiest you.