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What Does Gluten-Free Actually Mean & Why Do People Exclude it From Their Diet?

What Does Gluten-Free Actually Mean & Why Do People Exclude it From Their Diet?

You may have seen advertisements for gluten-free foods in your local grocery store or restaurant menus for years now. But many still don’t know what gluten is or what a gluten-free diet really means. The gluten-free diet is more than a fad diet and actually has therapeutic purposes.


What is Gluten?


Gluten is a protein that is found in the grains of wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten gives bread and baked goods the ability to rise and gives them a chewy texture. It can also be found in other packaged foods and beverages since gluten is often used to thicken many foods. 


Why Should You Avoid Gluten?


Many people don’t have any noticeable issues when digesting gluten and will do just fine with gluten being a part of their diet. However, a few conditions can cause adverse symptoms when consuming gluten. 


Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which gluten triggers an immune response in the body. The immune system produces antibodies to fight against it, damaging the lining of the small intestine. This negatively impacts nutrient absorption and can further lead to nutrient deficiencies on top of other symptoms. 


Celiac disease symptoms vary widely; some people don’t notice symptoms at all. Some gastrointestinal symptoms can include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or stomach pain. Other symptoms could be skin rashes, fatigue, brain fog, or anemia. 


Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity produces similar symptoms to celiac diseases; however, it does not cause an autoimmune reaction. Therefore, no damage to the small intestine occurs. 


Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy is an allergy to at least one of the proteins found in wheat. Symptoms can vary but may include swelling, itching of the mouth, hives, shortness of breath, nausea, and anaphylaxis. People with a wheat allergy don’t need to avoid gluten in all forms, but since gluten is found in wheat, they will need to avoid many foods that contain gluten. Many wheat products contain gluten, such as bread, pasta, and baked goods.


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Can a DNA Test Diagnose Me with Celiac or a Gluten Sensitivity?


While a DNA test will not be able to diagnose celiac disease, specific genetic variants have been linked to gluten sensitivities. A DNA test may be able to shed light on some of the gastrointestinal symptoms you may be having or why someone may have one of these conditions. 


  • The HLA-DQA1 gene belongs to a gene family that helps label cells as either part of the body or as foreign invaders. Specific genetic variants in these genes can influence its conformation and determine whether your body accepts and digests gluten or rejects it as a foreign invader.


While these variants have been linked to gluten sensitivity, it is important to remember that additional factors, such as the environment, can also play a role.1 


What Foods Contain Gluten?


Any food containing wheat, rye, or barley will have gluten, which means it must be avoided on a gluten-free diet. 


Common Foods that Contain Gluten:


  • Grains: Wheat, rye, barley, couscous, farro, and spelt
  • Foods: Pasta, bread, pizza, baked goods, and crackers 
  • Sauces: Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, hoisin sauce, marinades, and some salad dressings
  • Beverages: Beer and some drink mixes 


In some cases, oats may need to be avoided when following a gluten-free diet. While oats are naturally gluten-free, they have a higher chance of being cross-contaminated with gluten, so it’s best to research and consume 100% gluten-free oat brands.


Gluten can also be found in unsuspected products such as shampoo and conditioner, other hair products, medicines, or vitamins. Sometimes gluten is used as a filler or coating, so reading labels is always recommended.


What Foods are Gluten-Free?

While gluten is commonly found in many foods we eat daily, there are lots of gluten-free substitutes, as well as naturally gluten-free options! 


Common Gluten-Free Foods:


  • Grains and other carbohydrates: Quinoa, rice, corn, potato, legumes, gluten-free oats, amaranth, and buckwheat
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Meat and seafood
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts and seeds


If you’re following a gluten-free diet, keep in mind that fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free. If you’re opting for processed or pre-prepared foods, make sure to read the nutritional facts labels and ingredient lists first. Gluten can be hidden in packaged goods, and often, many brands that claim to be gluten-free on their packaging are not 100% gluten-free. 


To learn about your own genes and their connection to sensitivities such as gluten, caffeine, and alcohol, order our easy, at-home nutrition-based DNA kit


References:

  1. Wolters, V. M., & Wijmenga, C. (2008). Genetic background of celiac disease and its clinical implications. The American journal of gastroenterology, 103(1), 190–195. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.2007.01471.x
  2. “Sources of Gluten.” Celiac Disease Foundation, https://celiac.org/gluten-free-living/what-is-gluten/sources-of-gluten/.


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