What Actually is Gluten? Where Does it Come From? Should I Avoid it?

Many people today choose a gluten-free diet. So, if you've wondered: What is gluten? Where does it come from? And, should I avoid it? Read our guide to gluten.

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Going gluten-free — you probably know someone who's done it or has talked to you about their plans. These days, eliminating gluten from your diet is a very popular choice since there is a widely accepted belief that gluten can cause stomach aches, puffiness, digestive issues, and more.


However, if you've listened to people who've reported they're going gluten-free, you may have wondered, "But, why?!" We are here to give you the scoop on gluten — what it is, where you can find it, how it can affect a body, and whether or not you should be jumping on this gluten-free bandwagon.


What Is Gluten?


Generally speaking, gluten refers to the proteins that are found in wheat. Despite many misconceptions, wheat is not just one thing. Our culture uses the term "wheat" to describe the grains durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farro, wheatberries, graham, einkorn, and Khorasan wheat (or Kamut). Each of the above-mentioned grains has gluten in it, and the gluten in these grains acts as a sort of natural glue or binding agent.


Want to know more basics about nutrition and the ingredients in our food? Read this guide to healthy carbohydrates and different ways you can incorporate them into your breakfast to start your day off by fueling your body in the right way.


Where Does Gluten Come From?


As mentioned in the list above, gluten comes from any wheat grain. Gluten can also be found in various grains beyond wheat, including barley, rye, and triticale. Gluten can also be found in some oats, not because they have gluten in them, but because oats are usually harvested and processed with the same equipment that wheat is harvested and processed with.


What Is Gluten-Free Food?


Gluten-free food is food with absolutely no gluten from any of the grains that have gluten in them (or on them). Gluten-free foods can be whole food items that don't have any grains in them, to begin with, like fruits and vegetables. Or, they can be processed foods that, while usually made with gluten as a binding agent, have been made with gluten explicitly left out.


If you cannot eat gluten and a food doesn't contain any grains, don't assume it's gluten-free. Gluten is a strong binding agent and is often used in various foods, from ice cream to soy sauce, to make them thicker and more flavorful. So, check every ingredient list before you take a bite.


What Is the Difference Between Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease?


Many people's bodies don't handle gluten well. That's why everyone should read the ingredients label on a food before they taste it, even if they don't think it has grains. However, some people need to be especially careful not to consume any gluten at all — and then some people should do their best to avoid gluten but won't experience a dire emergency if they do end up having some.


One group of people who must avoid all gluten at all costs is those who have celiac disease. People with celiac disease have an autoimmune condition in which the ingestion of gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Experts believe that celiac disease is genetic, and the health consequences of consuming gluten with celiac disease are not mild. In fact, eating gluten with celiac can cause nearly unbearable pain. It has many very severe long-term health consequences, including the possibility of developing dangerous secondary conditions like type 1 diabetes, MS, dermatitis herpetiformis, osteoporosis, infertility, epilepsy, heart disease, and even intestinal cancer. People who have celiac should get diagnosed as early as possible and avoid gluten at all costs.


Not everyone who feels bad when they eat gluten has celiac disease. In fact, some merely have gluten intolerance. People who have a gluten intolerance don't tolerate the consumption of gluten that well, and it can cause a range of uncomfortable physical reactions, including stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and more. However, people with gluten intolerance do not experience the same risks when eating gluten since eating it does not cause permanent damage.


So, Should I Eat Gluten?


If you have celiac disease, you should not eat gluten. Otherwise, that decision is up to you. If you feel uncomfortable consuming the protein, feel free to cut it out and see if you experience health benefits. Or moderate the amount you eat. There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, so there's no reason to eliminate it if you don't feel bad when you eat it.


Are you considering cutting out gluten because you want to be healthier? Here are some easy ideas for healthy recipes that are delicious and that use seasonal ingredients. Stop worrying about gluten itself and start worrying about getting all the nutrients your body needs to thrive.


Are Gluten-Free Foods Healthier Than Foods With Gluten?


At the end of the day, NO. There is nothing inherently healthier about gluten-free foods when compared to foods with gluten. There is simply one type of protein removed from gluten-free foods. These foods are safer for those with celiac, but gluten-free foods often have a range of ingredients added to them, like excess sugar, making them more palatable. These added ingredients can sometimes be considered less healthy for the people eating them, depending on a person's dietary goals.


Want to stop worrying about what you eat in general and just enjoy a peaceful relationship with the stuff that nourishes you and feels good to consume? Read our guide on having a healthier relationship with food and, ultimately, a more peaceful existence.