Debated, disputed, and demonized, gluten is one of the most misunderstood facets of the modern health movement. Separating fact from fiction can be difficult, with strident proponents on both sides. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. Read on to get the real goods.
Let’s begin with a definition: gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat. As its name suggests, gluten (Latin for ‘glue’) is the constituent that makes bread and pasta chewy. It's because of this quality that gluten is used in so many processed and packaged foods. Read the fine print and you’ll find it in everything from commercial sauces, to soups, to seasonings. In addition to making bread moist and delicious, it also comes in handy as an all-purpose thickener.
So What’s the Problem?
Wheat, in its natural state, contained far less gluten than it does today. Because of that ‘chewy’ factor, food producers have genetically modified wheat to contain many times the original amount of this particular protein. In the process, the original strain of wheat, eaten by our ancestors for millennia, has been lost in the shuffle. It's important to note that this is the case in North America, but in parts of Europe, where laws on genetic modification are more stringent, wheat remains similar to what it used to be.
If we combine the fact that,
a) today’s wheat is most certainly not a natural substance, and
b) it’s used in most of what we eat
...... the result is the widespread digestive issues that we see today.
Wheat intolerance has skyrocketed, and in some cases, celiac disease can develop (celiac disease is a true gluten allergy, and sufferers become seriously ill if they have even one molecule of gluten). All of this has given gluten a bad name indeed, though it’s important to understand that it has been the modification of wheat, and not wheat itself, that is the villain.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance
It’s estimated that anywhere from 10-15% of North Americans experience some form of gluten intolerance. The most common symptoms include fatigue after eating, ‘brain fog’, headaches, bloating, and indigestion. In my experience, the absolute easiest way to judge if you may be be better off without wheat is to simply cut it out of your diet for two weeks and see how you feel. When you re-introduce it, do so slowly, and take note of any changes. An intolerance can manifest itself in unexpected ways, such as irritability and mood swings.
The Moral of the Story
Whether or not you’re intolerant to gluten, it’s always a good idea to widen the variety of grains you eat. Experiment with quinoa, wild or brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, oats, barley, millet, teff, kamut and spelt (kamut and spelt, both varieties of wheat, are “ancient grains”, meaning the gluten ratio hasn't been tampered with). Once you get started, you’ll realize just how delicious wheat-free can be - and odds are good that removing even a little of your daily wheat consumption will make you feel a whole lot better.