Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
In every era, it seems there are a few particular foods that make it big in diet culture and become “new enemies.” The movement can spurn whole industries with products that claim to be free of this enemy or help to fight against it. In the 2010s, public enemy #1 has been labeled… gluten. All the world’s evils are attributed to it, and it seems to be to blame for anything from certain special needs diagnoses to grandiose claims that the human digestive system in general is not equipped to handle it. A gluten-free lifestyle has been billed as a cure-all. Many parents claim that their children’s issues, be they behavioral or otherwise, were cured or improved when they removed gluten from their diets. Some adults claim that their digestive issues have improved. And, of course, you have the people who simply went off gluten because it appeared to be the healthy thing to do without consulting their doctors or doing any real research.
And in the thick of all this are the people who are truly affected by consumption of gluten: you’ve seen that child staring longingly at the slices of birthday cake being passed out, or the adult checking out the new pizza store that opened because maybe they offer a gluten-free slice. Whenever you offer them something, they sadly shake their head and say, “Sorry, I wish I could. But I have celiac disease.”
So now that we’ve heard of the trend, let’s dive into the facts. What exactly is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that occurs in the grains that we know and love like wheat, barley, and rye. If you’ve ever watched a cooking show on TV, you might know that when mixing a cake batter you shouldn’t over-mix because you don’t want to develop the proteins and make it tough. On the flip side, when kneading bread dough, you do want to develop these proteins because they’re what gives the bread its nice, chewy texture.
“But I love bread! So why would it be bad for me?”
Here’s the good news: contrary to what diet culture would have you believe, gluten is not bad for humanity as a whole. On the other hand, there is a group of people diagnosed with celiac disease for whom gluten is bad. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease is “a serious autoimmune disorder that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the consumption of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.” They estimate that about 1 in 100 million people worldwide are affected by it, and that around 2.5 million Americans specifically are undiagnosed and at risk for complications.
How would someone know if they have celiac disease?
The Celiac Disease Foundation also lists the common symptoms people with celiac disease often suffer from, although some of these symptoms also overlap with other diseases. Symptoms common in adults are: unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, bone or joint pain, arthritis, bone loss, liver and biliary tract disorders, depression or anxiety, tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands and feet, seizures or migraines, canker sores, and an itchy skin rash. Specific to women are missed periods and infertility or multiple miscarriages.
People who have the misfortune to actually suffer from celiac disease cannot safely consume even a crumb of something with gluten in it. Their immune system treats something that is harmless to the rest of us as an enemy and attacks, causing damage to the lining of their intestines. Some people with celiac disease suffer from this so much that they cannot even have food that was made with utensils that have touched something with gluten, and everything must be kept separate for them. There are even gluten-sniffing dogs that can warn these people about any possible gluten in the food they want to eat.
So the good news is, if you don’t appear to suffer from any of these symptoms, or if you can definitely attribute them to something else, feel free to chow down on all the baguettes you want.
But on the other hand, it isn’t actually as simple as gluten being bad or not.
Unfortunately, it’s complex. There are countless people out there completely unaware that they actually do have celiac disease. There are also plenty of people who suffer from something called gluten sensitivity. People who suffer from gluten sensitivity can “generate symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage.”
So yes, while gluten is absolutely harmless to most of us, if you have suspicions that you may have a gluten sensitivity, it may be wise to test this out via a temporary elimination diet. In order to be certain, though, it’s imperative that you go to your doctor. Discuss any symptoms you might be having and why you feel they may be connected to gluten consumption.
If your doctor feels there is enough probable cause, then they will do one of two things. Either they will suggest an elimination diet, which you may have felt inclined to attempt anyway. This involves carefully reading all labels and making sure everything from your oats down to your toothpaste is gluten free. Or it can also be identified via a blood test. If an antibody called tissue transglutaminase is found, your dreams of a fancy croissant breakfast in Paris are probably toast. Sorry.
For those actually diagnosed with celiac disease, the good news is that the trend has spurred a whole new industry of gluten-free products. In the olden days, going off gluten meant giving up the things you loved. Pizza parties with ice cream cake were a thing of the past. Breakfast sandwiches from your local fast food joint couldn’t be your go-to breakfast anymore. Nowadays, everything from pizza dough to ice cream is made gluten free with new products coming on the market every day. So for many finding themselves navigating a new gluten-free realm, things don’t have to be all that bad.