Gluten: Is It Bad for You?

Gluten: Is It Bad for You?

How often have you come across the label Gluten Free on food items?  It seems like a healthier choice, right.  

Naturally it should be the same as non-fat, low-carb or low-cholesterol. That is enough for us to pick it up and add it to our diet. And we are happy that we included one more healthy option in our food! But, is that really the case?

Most of us join the anti-gluten bandwagon without understanding the Who, Why and How of going gluten free. There is a lot more significance when a food is labelled as Gluten Free.

It is not merely a tag for a heathy food option, but notification that it is safe for consumption for people who are gluten sensitive or suffering from a detrimental health condition known as Celiac Disease.

What is Gluten?

Gluten: Is It Bad for You?

The term Gluten refers to a family of seed proteins found in food grains like wheat, rye, barley, etc.

It is the substance that gives elasticity and binding properties to these cereals, thereby making them perfect choices for preparing various dry doughs for breads, pizzas, pastas and cookies.

Gluten provides the flours raising properties on fermentation and also helps to hold the shape. The chewy texture of foods like rotis, flat breads and pizzas is due to the presence of gluten in them.

Because of its adhesive nature, gluten is used in a number of cosmetic and non-food products also. Lip balms, lipsticks, lip gloss, self-adhesive strips on envelopes and stamps, play dough etc. are some of the items that use gluten.

It is usually considered safe for all other than to those who are specifically reactive to it.

Sources of Gluten

Gluten is often associated with wheat and forms 70-75% of the food grain. It is also found in grains and grain derivatives such as rye, spelt, barley, semolina, durum, triticale (a blend of rye and wheat), dalia, atta, maida, malt etc.

Oats, a grain that is naturally gluten free, may contain gluten due to cross-contamination during processing. Food items like bread, soy sauce, french fries, pasta, cookies and malted beverages also contain gluten.

When does Gluten become Harmful?

Gluten: Is It Bad for You?

Gluten is a mixture of a number of proteins belonging to the same family. The two main components of gluten are proteins called glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is generally considered to be responsible for the adverse health effects caused by gluten.

Most people can tolerate gluten. But in some people, the immune system misidentifies gluten as harmful, foreign invaders and goes defensive against it.

It goes on to destroy the nutrient and, in the process, damages the intestinal walls. The exact reason for gluten intolerance is not yet identified, though it is generally considered genetic.

Most reactions to gluten are autoimmune responses, i.e., automatically triggered by immune system. The side effects of gluten manifests as health conditions like Celiac Disease (CD), non-celiac gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy and dermatitis herpetiformis.

Celiac Disease(CD):

Also known as Coeliac Disease, it is an immune reaction to gluten ingestion. It is estimated that 1% of the total world population suffer from Celiac disease.

It is a chronic health condition and can affect both children and adults. It is difficult to identify this condition as the symptoms are similar to other digestive disorders.

The indicators may be as mild and varied as tiredness, anemia, joint pains, headaches, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, foul-smelling stools, nausea, depression and weight loss.

Therefore, the condition can be confirmed only through blood test and biopsy of small intestine.

The damage is slow, but permanent if not diagnosed correctly at an early stage. Celiac disease affects the growth in children as their bodies don’t absorb nutrients properly.

The children may grow shorter in height, have delayed puberty and may even suffer from learning disorders and ADHD. In adults, Celiac disease may result in reduced spleen function, malnutrition, loss of bone density, infertility and even cancer.

There is no cure or treatment for Celiac disease other than completely following a gluten-free diet.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity

Sometimes individuals may be intolerant to gluten even though they are non-celiac. This condition, also called as gluten intolerance, may have the same symptoms of celiac disease, but without the same severity and damage to intestines.

Also, the symptoms are short lived. But if people with such sensitivity continue with gluten intake, they can have prolonged health issues like hair loss, anemia, osteoporosis, stomach ulcers etc.

Gluten intolerance can be tested through a negative celiac test. Unlike celiac disease, it is not an auto immune disease. But the treatment remains the same, that is to avoid gluten.

Wheat Allergy:

Wheat allergy is observed more in children than in adults. Most people overcome the condition by adulthood.

Symptoms include swelling or itching in mouth or throat, itchy eye, diarrhea, flatulence, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and anaphylaxis.

The allergy is usually caused by one or more of the proteins in wheat such as albumin and globulin in addition to glutenin and gliadin.

Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH)

This is a gluten reaction that doesn’t affect digestive process, but the skin. Gluten intake triggers itchy skin rashes that could turn to bumps and blisters.

It can occur on knees, elbows, scalp, hairline and back. People with Celiac disease are prone to this condition. Maintaining a gluten-free diet is the only remedial action for Dermatitis herpetiformis.

Being Gluten Free: How to go about with it

Gluten: Is It Bad for You?

A gluten-free diet completely eliminates all sources, derivatives and contaminants of gluten. There are no two ways in following such a diet if a person is gluten sensitive or diagnosed with celiac disease.

Those with celiac disease cannot digest gluten. They must rigorously and religiously avoid it throughout their lives.

But the question is whether to go completely gluten free if there are no specific allergies or health conditions. 

In that case, it is better to consult your doctor or nutritionist before going gluten-free. They could help with the nutritional deficiencies caused by gluten-free diet. After all, grains and cereals containing gluten are also rich in iron, calcium, fiber and vitamins.

You may choose to opt for gluten free diet as a means of improving your intestinal health. For example, in some people, maida may cause some digestive problems or irritable bowel syndrome. It may not be gluten or wheat sensitivity, but avoiding refined flour might help with better bowel movement. In such cases, whole wheat may not necessarily be the problem but maida might be the culprit.


The nutrients in the gluten rich foods can be easily substituted from other grains and food groups. Fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, eggs, tapioca, white rice etc. are some options.

But if you are on a weight loss goal it is advisable to stay away from starchy food like rice and tapioca. Instead you can replace it with products containing wholegrains like quinoa, millets, buckwheat, corn, flaxseeds, amaranth and arrowroot.                                   

For further reading

  1. All about Celiac Disease- Yvelte Brazier, Dec 15, 2017
  2. Gluten Free Diet: Foods, Benefits and Risks- Honor Whiteman, Feb 19, 2018
  3. Gluten - A Benefit or Harm to Body?
  4. Harvard T.H.Chan, School of Public Health- Diet Review: Gluten-free for Weight Loss
  5. Intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation in individuals reporting sensitivity to wheat in the absence of coeliac disease- by Melanie Uhde, Mary Ajamain, BMJ Journals

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