I remember the day so clearly. I was at the airport waiting for my parent’s flight to arrive when my doctor called me to tell me I had celiac disease. The next words I remember hearing was that I could no longer eat gluten. I thought to myself, “What is gluten anyway?”
After getting that initial diagnosis, and assigned a new gluten-free diet, my mind was spinning.
But I had to hit the pause button.
My parents had just arrived home after a two week international vacation. On the car ride home, I was anxious to hear all about their trip – but my mind was still worried about my own future.
What is gluten?
What is celiac disease?
What does a gluten-free diet look like?
So many questions, so few answers.
After I dropped off my parents at their home, I drove home as fast as I could. I then turned to my friend, Google, for answers.
I’m happy to say my knowledge has increased tenfold since that bittersweet day in April 2012. Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books about the gluten-free diet and attended numerous seminars and classes. I even became a certified holistic nutrition coach! I can easily answer the question, “What is gluten?” without batting an eye.
Today I want to share my learnings with you.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It gives breads that elastic, spongy texture, and is found in foods like cereal, pastas and cakes. Think of gluten as the “glue” that holds foods together (the word “gluten” literally means “glue” in Latin). It’s that sticky substance that binds pastas, breads, bagels, cakes, muffins, cookies and other foods together. Because gluten is often considered an all purpose stabilizer, food manufacturers add it to a lot of foods to give it better texture and taste. That’s why gluten is found in random places like salad dressings, gravies and even lipsticks and medications! Check out my list of 100 Alternative Names for Gluten if you’re avoiding gluten.
Gluten is everywhere and often hard to detect. Gluten comes in many forms like malt, MSG and in fermented alcohols. It is often hidden in things like licorice (wheat flour is the first ingredient in many mainstream licorice brands) and soy sauce, which is about 40% wheat! Read this article to uncover 10 Surprise Products that Contain Gluten – it’s in places you probably never thought of before!
How to Avoid Gluten
The best way to avoid gluten is to eat naturally gluten-free foods that you prepare at home. Naturally gluten-free foods are often some of the best foods for you too! Here is a short list of naturally gluten-free foods:
- Dark Chocolate (pure chocolate – beware of add-ins)
- Kasha (buckwheat)
If at all possible, I suggest you prepare your food at home. When you eat out, your risk of getting glutened is high. Restaurant kitchens can usually accommodate you, but they are minefields for cross contamination. If the chef is handling sandwich bread, then s/he touches the lettuce on your dish, you can get sick. Likewise, just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it was prepared in a gluten-free way. Shared fryers in restaurants are notorious for cross contaminating your foods. French fries, which are made of potatoes and are naturally gluten-free, are often cooked in a shared fryer along with chicken nuggets, which are not gluten-free. This means the same exact oil used to cook gluten cooked your gluten-free food too.
Wheat-Free vs. Gluten-Free
When something is marked wheat-free, it simply means it contains no wheat. However, wheat-free doesn’t mean it’s gluten-free. Gluten is found in things like barley and rye – so while the product may not have wheat in it, it does contain gluten. Don’t be fooled into thinking something is gluten-free when it’s only wheat-free.
Why Is Gluten Bad for Some People?
You may not just be wondering what is gluten, but you may also be wondering why gluten is bad for some people, particularly those of us suffering from celiac disease. Many other people follow a gluten-free diet, either because they are sensitive to gluten or have a gluten-allergy or intolerance of sorts. Many people turn to the gluten-free diet after suffering from some sort of digestive distress.
Gluten is quite difficult to digest. It takes a lot of acid in our stomach to break down the sticky protein. Oftentimes that protein goes through the stomach without being properly broken down. When it enters the small intestine, large gluten proteins escape into our bodies and become free radicals. Free radicals wreak havoc throughout our bodies. The body reacts to the gluten by attacking it, as in the case of celiac disease, an autoimmune disease. Others suffer from things like “leaky gut” due to the gluten creating holes in the intestinal lining, therefore allowing food particles to escape prematurely into our bodies. Free radicals cause chronic inflammation, distress and even pain in various parts of our bodies depending on where the free radicals set up shop.
Do You Suffer from Digestive Distress?
If you think gluten might be behind your digestive woes – gas, bloating, constipation or leaky gut – then enroll in my FREE Heal Your Gut Challenge. For seven days I’ll email you a tip to change your gut health – and whole health – for the better. Learn more and sign up for free here.
I hope this article was helpful in helping you figure out “what is gluten” and why some people avoid it. You can also read more about My Celiac Story here if you want to learn more about my diagnosis.