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Gluten is the general term for a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. All forms of wheat contain gluten, including durum, spelt, and farro.
Many everyday food products have gluten, such as pasta, bread, and beer. However, gluten is also an ingredient in a variety of less obvious foods.
A significant number of people experience an adverse reaction to gluten on consumption, meaning that they must stick to a gluten-free diet to avoid negative effects.
In this article, we provide further information on gluten, why some people should avoid it, and which foods contain the protein.
Gluten is the name given to a family of proteins found in all forms of wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. These proteins help bind foods together, maintaining their shape.
Wheat products, such as bread, baked goods, crackers, cereals, and pasta, commonly contain gluten. It is also an ingredient in barley-based products, including malt, food coloring, malt vinegar, and beer.
However, these gluten-containing grains may also occur in other, less obvious foods, such as:
- salad dressings
An individual may need to follow a gluten-free diet for several reasons:
- Gluten sensitivity: A person with sensitivity to gluten might experience abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and fatigue after consuming gluten. Eliminating gluten from the diet may improve these symptoms.
- Celiac disease: This is an autoimmune disorder in which an intolerance to gluten can damage the small intestine, leading to intestinal damage, poor nutrient absorption, and physical pain. Some people with celiac disease do not have any symptoms.
A person with celiac disease should consume a completely gluten-free diet.
Other people also choose to follow a gluten-free diet for weight loss reasons or a variety of other health reasons.
However, some people who do not have celiac disease or a gluten allergy experience symptoms similar to people with these conditions. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- rheumatologic diseases
Recent research also suggests that NCGS might be a disease of the gut that causes an immune response.
Other studies indicate that NCGS may involve changes in gut microbiota or have genetic, environmental, and pathological causes.
Individuals trying to avoid gluten should thoroughly check ingredient labels.
A person can find out whether a product contains wheat by checking the allergy information section on the label.
Products labeled as wheat-free are not necessarily gluten-free. They may still contain spelt, rye, or barley-based ingredients, for example. These all contain gluten.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted a law in August 2013 that forces food manufacturers to label all products that are safe for consumption by individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance as gluten-free.
Some non-food products may also contain hidden sources of gluten in the form of lecithin.
Anyone avoiding gluten should always check the ingredients on the packaging of the following products:
- prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications
- vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements
- lip balm
- other skin and hair products
- toothpaste and mouthwash
- adhesive glue on stamps and envelopes
- modeling dough
Individuals with celiac disease should also avoid foods or products that may have come into contact with gluten.
Cross-contact can frequently occur with:
- cutting boards
- oil used in fried foods
- shared containers
Oats often contain gluten through cross-contamination. Check the labels on the packages for oats that are gluten-free.
Many natural foods are safe to consume on a gluten-free diet, including:
- dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- other starches, such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, and buckwheat
Always check the packaging carefully when buying these products to make sure they do not contain added gluten.
Gluten-free versions of products that would usually contain gluten are also available. The manufacturers of these have replaced specific ingredients to make these foods gluten-free, such as bread, cereals, cookies, or baked goods.
Do not self-diagnose the need for a gluten-free diet.
Gluten must be present in the body for a person to receive an accurate diagnosis of celiac disease, as gluten produces antibodies after a person with insensitivity consumes them. A doctor can then identify these.
A person who suspects that gluten or wheat products are causing irritation or allergies should talk to a doctor or a registered dietitian before adopting a gluten-free diet.
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Can a gluten-free diet support weight loss?
It depends. In the case of someone who has non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet could help with weight loss by reducing inflammation.
In addition, if someone switches from a gluten-containing diet of processed or high-sugar packaged foods to a gluten-free diet composed primarily of whole foods, such as beans, vegetables, fruits, and lean meats, weight loss is likely.
However, take caution with processed gluten-free rice, corn-based crackers, and pasta. These are usually lower in fiber and may negatively alter gut bacteria, making weight loss more difficult.Natalie Butler, RD, LD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.