Gluten free

People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten -a protein found in wheat, rye and other cereals- and they need gluten free food. However, a gluten free diet is also beneficial for many others.

Is gluten really harmful?

You will probably already have guessed that the title is a trick question. Sometimes consuming gluten is harmful and other times it's not. As always in nutrition, the answer is: it depends. The story gets interesting when you ask "Depends on what?"

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and a few other monocot grains. Dicot grains like buckwheat and spinach lack it.

Gluten is used in breads and doughs made from those grains, but also in a huge variety of other things. Check some good labels on a variety of commercial foods and you'll see it's an ingredient in everything from salad dressing to ice cream. It's even found in some vitamins and medicines.

The reason is fairly simple: gluten is a great 'glue'. It makes dough stretch but not fall apart; it gives ice cream a more substantial texture.

It isn't gluten, per se, that gives celiac disease sufferers such fits. It's a component called "gliaden" that does the harm. That harm comes from initiating an autoimmune response in some people that releases antibodies that attack healthy tissue. Those antibodies eventually deteriorate the finger-like projections in the small intestine called "villi." That destruction leads to nutrient malabsorption, which in turn produces the symptoms of celiac disease.

Although it's a major annoyance to track every food and drink consumed, celiac sufferers do manage to live healthy lives when they stick to a gluten-free diet. It's a little questionable, though, whether "going gluten free" is such a great idea for anyone else.

Provided certain guidelines are followed there certainly can't be any ill effects to your health from reducing or even eliminating gluten from your diet. The potential problems arise when you start to think this is equivalent to a low carbohydrate or low calorie diet. It may or may not be. Usually it isn't. Entertaining gluten free is an example, it is something that requires careful planning.

Those who strive to reduce gluten intake, but don't suffer from celiac disease or dermatitis herpatiformis, the other gliaden-linked disease, may think it's a great idea to forego eating bread. It can't hurt and many nutrition experts believe cutting out grains is a big benefit. Advocates of the "paleo diet" are a good example.

The trouble starts when it comes time to choose substitutes for gluten-containing food and drink. A balance must be achieved between what's healthy and what's a tasty low gluten or gluten free diet.

There's nothing beneficial about eating many high-carbohydrate buckwheat pancakes for breakfast just to avoid the gluten in a slice of wheat toast. Similarly, drinking a lot of home-brewed, or even commercially made, gluten-free beer is not the way to ensure health or lose weight. It's the alcohol in beer that supplies so many carbs, not the gluten derivatives. Actually, in moderation, alcohol can be quite beneficial. "Moderation" is the keyword, however.

So, by all means, learn as much as possible about weight loss alternatives including the gluten-free diet. But don't forget why that phrase has become so well known.

First, certain people love to scare you by suggesting you may have the latest 'fad' disease. Good statistics are hard to come by but at the high end the odds are estimated to be 1 in 133.

They're probably much lower. If you check the number of diagnosed cases of celiac as a percentage of the population and extrapolate you find: about 0.4% or half the 1 in 133 figure. Some studies suggest it's even much lower: 40,000 cases in the U.S. Currently, or 0.01% of Americans.

In other words, your chances of having celiac are small. Many other conditions like IBS and Cron's have similar symptoms and have nothing to do with gluten or gliaden sensitivity.

Second, some businesses make a ton of money by charging you more for gluten-free food and drink products. If you've studied and decided that it's likely to be beneficial to you, fine. Otherwise, going gluten free may do more harm than good.