What’s the big deal about gluten?
by Dr Janet Brill
Are you curious about the gluten-free movement that has captured the nation? An amazing thirty percent of the American public has or is trying to cut back on gluten intake, so obviously this is a popular nutrition topic. If you are considering going gluten-free, here are a few facts that can help you decide if this dietary strategy is for you:
- What is gluten?
Gluten is a plant protein found in wheat. Only wheat (and related grain species such as barley and rye) contains the protein gluten. Gluten is actually a “composite protein,” or a combo of two proteins that remain after all the starch is washed away from wheat flour. Gluten contains two main groups of protein, called the gliadins and the glutenins. During digestion in the small intestine, these large strands of protein are broken down into smaller amino acid chains called polypeptides, which are then absorbed into the small intestine.
- When is gluten a problem?
Only about 1% of the US population has celiac disease (an abnormal immune reaction to partially digested gliadin). When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an harmful immune system reaction in the small intestine that has serious medical consequences.
Gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance) differs from celiac disease and is actually a spectrum of disorders which include celiac disease and wheat allergy. (A person can be gluten intolerant and not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy.) In the case of gluten intolerance, when one consumes gluten, the symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bloating, headaches, and fatigue.
- When should you definitely go gluten-free?
If you have received a definitive diagnosis from your physician that you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity then by all means avoid wheat products. However, for the large majority of Americans, gluten is a perfectly digested protein in the human digestive tract with zero deleterious side effects. In fact, wheat is a cereal grain (a type of grass) that has been cultivated as a source of nutrition for humankind as far back as 9600 BC, hence wheat is truly the “staff of life.” Whole wheat (in its natural form) is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrate, protein and healthy oil. Globally, wheat is the leading source of vegetable protein in human food, having a higher protein content than either maize (corn) or rice, the other major cereals.
If you are a healthy and active person with no history of gluten sensitivity then do not shy away from eating whole wheat products. People who eat whole wheat breads and cereals have a reduced risk of chronic disease, especially heart disease—the leading cause of death in American men and women. A Fitness Together trainer can help you to sort out gluten facts from fiction by getting your questions answered from a registered dietitian/nutritionist. He or she will also develop an exercise program designed to meet your specific needs. You’ll receive nutritional counseling through the dietitian-designed Nutrition Together program, which will complement your workouts. To find the Fitness Together studio nearest you, please visit www.fitnesstogether.com
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