I have been hearing for a while that many people are going gluten- free and that it is healthy. Many believe that it would definitely lead to weight loss. But before we generalize anything let us understand a little more about gluten.
Gluten is the general name which is used to describe a mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. The protein groups are divided into two groups Prolamines and Glutelins. Different grains have different amounts of these proteins. So... is gluten bad? No gluten is not bad for everyone but only for certain people.
Image courtesy of (rolling dough: lemonade; wheat: KEKO64; bread basket: amenic 181) at freedigitalphotos.net
Gluten related disorders
1. Autoimmune reactions:
i. Celiac Disease: This is probably the most widely studied gluten related disorder wherein gluten triggers an autoimmune response and causes inflammation of the intestines. The Western countries have given it a lot of importance and rightly so, because if it goes undetected then it leads to a lot of other complications. But it is a myth if one thinks that it occurs only in the west because studies conducted in India shows the existence of this disease here too. But the only problem is lack of awareness. It was observed that it occurred mostly in northern India than the southern part of the country obviously because wheat is the staple grain in the north.
ii. Dermatitis herpetiformis or Duhring Brocq disease. This is a chronic autoimmune skin blistering condition.
iii. Gluten Ataxia which is a neurological condition consisting of lack of voluntary condition of muscle movements and includes gait abnormality.
2. The other form of gluten sensitivity is Non celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS): There is no specific test for this condition. This is understood after celiac disease and the other known conditions are ruled out. NCGS is under much debate. There are many studies which support the existence and many which don't. Therefore, one needs to rule out other conditions such as the ones mentioned above and others such as irritable bowel syndrome, wheat allergy, to finally come to the conclusion the it is gluten sensitivity just by itself. Many studies on gluten sensitivity have been not very conclusive because some of the test subjects reacted even to other food components such as milk proteins, eggs, tomatoes.
3. Sometimes the individual might be allergic to just wheat but can tolerate other grains: This is simply called wheat allergy. The symptoms of wheat allergy are similar to Celiac disease and NCGS but the difference is in the onset. Wheat allergy has a fast onset. Some patients with wheat allergy can tolerate other grains such barley, oats. While others maybe advised to completely give up gluten.
So if one feels discomfort after consuming gluten containing products, should get themselves tested. The symptoms of Celiac disease are different for infants and young children, for teenagers and adults.
Infant and young children: Diarrhea, constipation, growth problems, difficulty in gaining weight, irritability, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal bloating and pain.
Teenagers: For teenagers with Celiac disease symptoms may not occur unless triggered by some stressful situation. Symptoms are; diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, delayed puberty, irritability, depression, abdominal pain and bloating, mouth sores, skin rashes
Adults: Iron deficiency, joint pains, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression or anxiety, seizures, irregular menstruation, mouth sores, skin rashes, tingling numbness in hands and feet.
Even if someone has just a few of these symptoms should consult a physician.
It has been observed that the number of people being affected by gluten is rising. So the question which arises is why? Is it a real situation or is there too much awareness? I think it is a bit of both. Of course there is awareness. Just as there is awareness about a whole lot of other things but it is also real. The food that we have now is far more different than what our ancestors would have. The kind of wheat that is available is said to be different than what it used to be. Excessive use of antibiotics might have destroyed a lot of the gut flora leading to inability to digest a lot of things including gluten. Even environmental factors may be responsible. Pesticides, hybrid variety of food products. The exact reason behind why it is increasing could be anything. But what we need is awareness and with awareness the understanding that not everyone needs to go gluten-free. There are some who believe that it is better to give up grains completely. But in a country like India where our diet primarily consists of grains, it is not practical. If you have been experiencing digestive problems or other symptoms mentioned above, it could be gluten, just wheat, milk, eggs, fish (few of the common allergens) or many other factors. So please consult a health professional to understand the exact cause. But if the tests turn out to be inconclusive and you feel better with a gluten-free diet, then by all means go ahead. At the end of the day we just want to feel good and healthy.