What the Hell is Gluten?


Gluten-free, so hot right now. Gluten-free.

Gluten has recently become a topic for discussion across the country as people attempt to get healthy (without having to actually make improvements to their diets or routines).

On top of that, more and more people are discovering they have some sort of gluten intolerance.  A recent discovery shows that gluten intolerance can be up to four times more prevalent today than fifty years ago!

As a result, food companies are scrambling to rebrand, redevelop, and repackage everything as “gluten-free” to catch up with the latest craze.

We’ve received tons of questions from Rebels: Are gluten-free products a healthy alternative to the gluten-full versions of our favorite foods?

Even movies like “This is the End” have something to say about gluten (warning: NSFW language):

This is the End: Gluten Scene

However, just like the characters in this scene, most people really have no idea what gluten actually is, if it’s really bad for you, and why you should eat or not eat it:

Jay: You have no idea what gluten is.

Seth: Gluten is a vague term.  It’s something that’s used to categorize things that are bad.  You know, calories, that’s a gluten.  Fat, that’s a gluten.

Jay: Somebody just probably told you that you shouldn’t eat gluten and you’re like “oh well gee I guess I shouldn’t eat gluten.”

Seth: Gluten means bad sh** man, and I’m not eating it.

Although Seth means well, he really has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to gluten. So, if you’re one of the few confused souls out there wondering “WTF is a Gluten?” I got you covered.

In case you’re keeping track, that’s two comedy references already in an introduction about gluten.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even work some cat videos in this one.

Let’s learn about gluten!

Note: this article was typed on a locally sourced, organic, gluten-free computer.

What is HELL is Gluten?

wheat fields

Gluten, meet Nerd Fitness Rebel.

My dear Rebel friend, meet Gluten.  

Gluten is a type of protein found in foods processed from specific types of grain.  It’s kind of gummy, doughy, and provides the “rising” property to things like pizza dough (when it interacts with yeast).  You probably had no idea that it’s used as a thickener and filler in a LOT of products (don’t worry, I’ll let you know which ones below).

Think “glue” when you think “gluten.”

“Which grains specifically have gluten?” you ask!

Gluten is found in products made from wheat, barley, and rye.

Technically, some type of “gluten” can be found in all grains, but it’s really the specific type of gluten found in those first three (wheat, barely, rye) that cause a lot of issues; those will be the three that we’re going to focus on today.  Also, quite a few types of grains (like oats) are often processed in close proximity to gluten-filled grains, and are thus “cross-contaminated.” Suck!

Why is gluten a troublemaker?

star wars troublemaker

What makes gluten so bad?

Why are we trying to avoid it?

Why are companies making gluten-free alternatives?

So, if you happen to be a fan of anthropology and cavemen (including Fred Flintstone), here’s a simple explanation:

We developed as a species for hundreds of thousands of years, and only in the past 10,000 years did we learn about farming, agriculture, and thus begin the consumption of farmed grains like wheat, barley, rye, etc.

Because these types of foods are new to our bodies on the evolutionary timeline, many people never fully developed a tolerance for the consumption of gluten based foods, and thus they can cause all sorts of issues inside our body.

(Before you yell at me and say “but Steve this one dude found evidence that caveman ate grains that one time so you’re dumb. Long live gluten!” I cover all of that here.)

What happens to gluten intolerant people who eat gluten?  

Imagine your body is throwing a party, and gluten wasn’t on the guest list but they show up anyways.  Classic gluten. When your body says “Sorry Gluten, we don’t take kindly to your type around here. You can git out!”  Gluten gets all depressed and says “but…I’ve walked ALLLLL this way, can I stay PLEEEASE?”

You feel bad, and don’t want to send Gluten home, so you tell him to quietly sit in the corner.  Of course, Gluten is kind of a clutz, and can’t help but break the chair he sits in, knock things off the mantle, and spill a drink on your new carpet.

Go home Gluten, you’re drunk.

In biological terms, Gluten means well, but accidentally messes up your gastrointestinal tract, either inflaming it or actually damaging it.

If you’re intolerant, here are just SOME of the symptoms that gluten brings to the party: joint inflammation, bloating, irritability, dermatitis, skin rashes, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, unexplained iron deficiency, and more.  Sure…he means well.

Many people (knowingly or unknowingly) have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten.  Doctor Fasano, director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, estimates that 6-7% of the population has a sensitivity with the digestion of gluten, though some small studies would suggest otherwise.

Some people (roughly 1% of the population) have a medical issue (autoimmune) with gluten – this is called celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune digestive disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food.  Ultimately, your body turns on itself when dealing with gluten, and your white blood cells attack and can destroy the lining of your small intestine, leading to the lack of absorption of nutrients from your food.

Not cool, gluten. Not cool.

Because gluten is so pervasive in the typical American diet, many people have no idea that they are gluten intolerant, and simply put up with the side effects as the aren’t aware they’re not supposed to feel like crap all the time.

So, gluten free = healthy?

gluten free

“Okay Steve, but what if I don’t have a medical issue, should I still be going gluten-free?”

Not so fast there, partner.

Just because something is “gluten-free” DOES NOT make it healthy.  Going gluten-free might help you lose weight (as it did with rats in this study), but depending on HOW you go gluten-free, you might actually gain weight and get even unhealthier.

Just as there’s a wrong way to go Paleo (7,000 calories of bacon per day) and a wrong way to go vegetarian (donuts are vegetarian! Cookies are vegetarian!), there’s a wrong way to go gluten-free.

A lot of these new gluten-free products strip out the few healthy components of their regular versions.  On top of that, a gluten-free version of a certain type of food is oftentimes 20-200% more expensive.

If you go “gluten-free” by simply just switching your diet to “gluten-free bread, gluten-free pizza, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bagels, gluten-free Rice Krispies, and gluten-free cookies, ” you have made no real dietary changes and are setting yourself up for nutritional deficiencies, weight gain, and a plethora of other issues.

This is why the emails I receive announcing: “but I’m eating healthy: paleo cupcakes and gluten-free pancakes!” drive me crazy.

If you are looking to eat a gluten-free lifestyle, focus on eating more REAL foods instead of finding fake substitutes for the crap you used to eat! 

By avoiding common gluten troublemakers, it just so happens you end up eating more real foods and less processed, sugary crap. That’s where your focus should be, not on any one indicator of a ‘health food.’ Whether you are looking for a “sugar-free,” “fat-free” or “gluten-free” label, there’s more to nutrition than a single marketing health slogan.  Focus on eating REAL food!

Here are some real foods that ARE gluten-free:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Fowl
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts

Does that diet look familiar?  It should…it’s essentially the Paleo Diet!

Note: Everything that qualifies for the Paleo Diet is gluten-free, but not all gluten-free foods would qualify for the Paleo Diet. Also, foods like rice, dairy, oats (not cross-contaminated), and others can be part of a healthy, gluten-free diet if your stomach can handle them.

Now, the Paleo Diet works for some people, and it doesn’t work for others. THAT’S FINE.  We’re obviously supporters of this way of eating here at Nerd Fitness because it accomplishes our main goal – getting people to think actively about how they fuel their bodies, putting the focus on eating real foods.

Just remember, Steve says Relax.

What foods have Gluten in them?

gluten bagel

Let’s knock off a few of the obvious ones first: Gluten is present in wheat, which means gluten is present in flour.

It’s the gluten that allows flour to be turned into things like:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Bagels
  • Donuts
  • Pizza dough

“BUT STEVE, I love all of those thing!”  I know, pal.  Those things are all awesome and delicious. And not good for you.  It’s no surprise that those five things listed above are five of the most caloric, carbohydrate dense foods on the market.  If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness long enough, then you know it’s these foods and sugar that are sabotaging our wastelines and body fat.

“Okay, so if I just cut back on the grains and carbs, I should be gluten-free, right?”

Nope.  Gluten is used in practically every processed food, believe it or not.  It’s present in beer (sad, I know), soy sauce (I’ll get to “soy” in another article), and even used as a stabilizing agent in ice cream and ketchup.

Gluten is also used in many imitation meats like mock chicken, beef, etc.  It’s the gluten that gives these foods their texture.

Believe it or not, gluten-free foods like oats are often processed in a factory where they are cross contaminated with grains that contain gluten, and thus are no longer gluten-free.

Heck, there’s even gluten in Play-doh!  So, if you considered making play-doh spaghetti and eating it, you’re not off to a good start.  Also, eating paste isn’t a solid plan either.

The FDA is finally getting in on standards for the labeling of foods that are gluten-free, but oftentimes a lot of foods that DO have gluten aren’t properly labeled as such.

Here’s a longer list of many known foods and ingredients that contain gluten

How do I know if I’m gluten intolerant?

gluten free question
So, right now you’re reading this, and you’re thinking “hey, I feel like crap all day, and my joints hurt, and I become Crankenstein more often than I’d like…am I gluten intolerant or do I have celiac disease, Steve?”

You may be gluten intolerant.  You might have celiac disease.

Statistically, it’s very unlikely, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.  

If you have a close relative who has celiac disease, then your chances are definitely increased.

The tough part is that symptoms for gluten intolerance or celiac disease can often be a result of ANOTHER disease or issue:  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, intestinal issues, lactose intolerance, depression, and more.

If you are concerned and have one or many of the symptoms associated with celiac disease above, consider taking the following steps.

Note: Again, just because you have SOME of the symptoms listed above doesn’t mean your body hates Gluten.

“Can I get tested for gluten intolerance?”

As of right now, there’s no true test for just gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.  If you believe you might have a sensitivity to gluten, the only way to determine if the diagnosis is legitimate is to go completely gluten-free for 2-4 weeks and judge your symptoms. Because this isn’t a blood or medical test, you can mistakenly diagnose yourself. You can literally make yourself feel better because you expect to feel better (like a placebo).

However, if you think DO feel better and don’t mind following a gluten-free lifestyle, run with it.

Note: If you are going to follow through with the celiac disease test below, it’s important to NOT transition to a gluten-free diet before being tested.  Your body might have already started repairing itself and you could not get properly diagnosed. 

“Steve, I seriously think I might have celiac disease. What’s my next step?”:

Reach out to your primary doctor, discuss your symptoms, and work with him/her to determine if you should have your blood tested – this is the most accurate way of getting properly diagnosed.   

If you do get your blood tested, your doctor will be looking for “abnormally elevated levels of endomysial and anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies.”

If your blood has these characteristics, then your next step would be an endoscopy and/or intestinal biopsy.  Your doctors will be able to help you with this step.

(If you’re sad about cutting gluten out of your diet, try channeling a Boston accent and say things like “F*** GLOOTEN!” or “Hey GLOOTEN, youah a LOOSAH!”

I know this is what my friend Jodi Ettenberg (who has celiac disease) and my friend Dave Ursillo like to do.

So, should I go gluten-free?

wheat gluten

Long story short: if you are going to go gluten-free, do it the right way.  

Eat more real foods.  Just because something is gluten-free does NOT make it healthy.  Filling your diet with processed gluten-free foods is the wrong way to follow through with a gluten-free diet.

If you are not gluten intolerant, and you don’t have celiacs, and eating gluten causes no ill effects:  are you happy, healthy, and do you look good naked?  If you can say yes to those three things, by all means keep doing what you’re doing – it’s working for you.  Everybody is different and no one diet works for everybody.

However, if you can’t say YES to all three questions above, consider adjusting your diet – not necessarily cutting out gluten, but moving towards more real foods.

I don’t believe I have issues with gluten digestion, so I don’t mind eating foods with gluten occasionally.  I know foods with gluten come from grains and contain lots of carbohydrates, so I try to minimize the consumption of these foods whenever I can. When I DO eat them, I can do so without adverse affects on my health or waistline, because it’s only on occasion.

Note: I do cut out foods with Gluten (and almost all non-Paleo foods) when I’m trying to slim down and drop my body fat percentage as low as possible.

What are some of the best gluten/celiac resources on the net?

gluten books

So, if you are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, where can you get more info?

Here’s a list of some relevant sites you can check out if you’re looking for more info:

  • A good primer on what you can eat and what you can’t eat from Gluten Free Living.  Including foods that are questionable and will require you to do some digging if you are aiming for 100% gluten-free.  It also does a good job of covering the basics.
  • A look at Gluten from Mark’s Daily Apple. Also, I found this article that compared two Gluten studies (one positive and one negative) fascinating.
  • Celiac Central – for an organization focused completely on a gluten-free lifestyle.  Celiac.com is also another resource if you’re looking for more information.
  • Recent FDA announcement regarding labeling, and their gluten home page to stay apprised of labeling updates.  This is a new industry, and the FDA is just now getting caught up with proper labeling practices.  If you need to eat 100% gluten-free, then relying on certain labels or just EXPECTING things to be gluten-free might not be the best course of action.  Get educated!
  • Gluten immunochemistry – in case you’re a science nerd and want to geek out about what happens to your body when you consume gluten. Note: this is super dense stuff and made my eyes go cross after reading a paragraph…so click at your own risk!
  • A roundup of a series of Gluten Free Blogs and Websites, from my friends over at Greatist.  This is quite the big list, and some of the resources focus on the wrong type of gluten-free, but it’s quite comprehensive, and you’re a big boy/girl, so I’ll let you decide for yourself 🙂
  • Gluten Free Beer! It exists, though this nerd has never had any.  This is the official Nerd Fitness stance on alcohol, by the way: take care of yourself as often as you can, but don’t forget to have some fun too.

What else do you want to know about gluten?

veggies

So, for those keeping track at home:

  • 2800 words about gluten
  • 4 comedy movie references
  • 2 south park references
  • 1 Bostonian swear
  • 0 1 video of a cat stuck in a box.

But enough about cats, let’s talk about gluten.  Have you been diagnosed with celiac disease? Have you had success or failure going gluten-free?  Do you have tips for people who are struggling with the same thing?

How did your life change after going gluten-free?

What are your favorite gluten resources online?

I’d love to add them to the resources section above.

Let’s get the discussion started!  

-Steve

PS: As stated everywhere on the site, I don’t consider myself an expert of anything, nor do I have a fancy piece of paper that declares I’m an expert.  I’m just a nerd who has dedicated the past decade to learning about health and fitness, trying to bring clarity to this chaotic world of diets and workouts.  Check with your physician or dietitian before making any changes to your diet.

###

photo source: gluten free sign, wheat field, star wars legosquestion, bagel, veggies, gluten free, wheat, gluten books

Get The Rebel Starter Kit

Enter your email and we’ll send it right over.

  • The 15 mistakes you don’t want to make.
  • The most effective diet and why it works.
  • Complete your first workout today, no gym required.
  • These are the tools you need to start your quest.
  • Amy Halpin

    My 10 year old son has suffered constipation for several years which led to embarrassing accidents. Last spring he developed daily migraine headaches and IBS with constant abdominal cramps. The neurologist said it was all in his head and should see a therapist. The GI Dr. tried some medications and as a last ditch effort suggestion she mentioned she had a few patients cured after going gluten-free. Within about 4 days my son felt 100% better, no more migraines or stomach cramps. He still struggles with constipation, but no therapist was needed!

  • Mandy

    I really need some advice. I am a mom of 7 children. We went all whole foods, no sugar about a year ago. One of my sons has always had stomach and skin problems (which, started when I introduced baby cereal~ REGRET). His issues got better when we started eating all whole foods, no sugar. Not completely gone, but better. I got tired of cooking all. the. time., NEVER taking a break not even for one meal or snack with a newborn. I am not complaining at all, just saying, it can be overwhelming. SO, I caved to relentless pressure and bought store bread, cringing at every purchase. Glad in a way that I did, bc it led us to discover that my son has food allergies (DUH, how could I not see this before). He had diarrhea at every meal/snack. He is 9 years old, by the way. Lost weight. It was terrible. Sound have trusted my momma instincts. His dr. took blood and told us that he tested neg for the prelim. test for celiacs, but that he has sensitivities to gluten, yeast, milk, peanuts, coconut, banana, cottage cheese, garlic and safflower. Cut out these foods= no more diarrhea or agonizing stomach aches. My questions are: Will he get better once his gut heals? I know he will prob. never be able to eat gluten, but what about the other things. He has been allergen free for 4 weeks. I gave him a tiny bit of peanut butter… he got sick again. Has his stomach been damaged? Does he have leaky gut? i have read so much, I get overwhelmed with the info. ALSO, he is a PICKY eater. After 4 weeks, he has lost more weight and is skinny skinny.

  • mandy

    I should add that he is active, playing sports, running around and otherwise healthy.

  • http://steadystrength.com/ Adam Pegg

    I have to agree that most of the people that I know who are on a “gluten free” diet, don’t know what it is……sad

  • Master Discord

    God help the guys doing stuff like Soylent. Trying to completely replace the entire spectrum of food with a fake shake. Barf.

  • Pingback: Open Mind Weekly {44/13} | With An Open Mind()

  • Pingback: Sport und Fitnessblogs am Sonntag, 03.11.2013()

  • Pingback: CrossFit Rife | Thursday: Cleans and Toes 2 Bar()

  • Sarah

    I have Celiac, commented on the Facebook picture yesterday and took the time to read the blog today. I want this made into a pamphlet so that when someone asks me what Celiac is I can just hand it to them, it is that great… Made me laugh at parts. I am a total nerd when it comes to Celiac now, friends call me “special” (air quotes and all). I don’t care! Whole foods= gluten free. Eat whole foods, they taste better than the prepackaged items labeled gluten free anyways! Again… great article and thanks for taking the time to discuss this on your blog!

  • Suzy

    I think it all comes down to self-testing. As a pre-diabetic woman, how I balance my food has to be very precise to keep my blood sugar where it should be. When I was diagnosed 4 years ago, I literally devoured every little bit of research and diet theory, then started to experiment all bias aside 2-3 month on every theory.

    My current diet would make a paleo fan or a gluten free fan cringe. Intermittent fasting is out of the picture for me, it makes my sugar too unpredictable. Fasted training shoots my sugar to the roof after the next meal. Low carb gives me an almost diabetic fasting blood glucose for some reason (My body trying to compensate by overproducing glycogen). If a day goes by where I don’t eat rye bread (GASP! GLUTEN!) or oatmeal (GRAINS! BLASPHEMY!) my blood sugar gets so unpredictable that I could eat a potato one moment without a problem and a cucumber would give me a sugar high on another.

    I’ve always had problems digesting meat and even as a child, so more than 2 oz a day means pain, bloating, constipation (even an obstruction a few years back). Weirdly enough fish does not seem to have the same effect.

    My body is happiest at about 150 carbs a day, a small snack before workout, about 2 oz of meat or poultry, rye bread, oatmeal, lintels (OMG! PHYTONUTRIENTS – well, sucks for you. They keep my tummy happy and my energy up), plain yogurt, home made cheese (BURN HER! DAIRY IS EVIL!) and a big variety of vegetables and fruits.

    I understand different things work for different people, and it really irks me when others just dismiss 4 years of suffering to reach what works for ME just because some article somewhere said something. What I like about this blog is that it does the research then encourages you to see what works for you instead of masquerading with blank statements THIS FOOD BAAAAAAD! NO EAT THIS! THIS FOOD GOOD, IF YOU NO EAT THIS, YOU DIE!

  • carla

    Wheatgerm is said to has many benefits for good health, how come then?

  • James

    Let me get this straight. The whole paleo conceit is founded on the notion that we evolved to eat one way, but we now eat another way, and that is making us sick. But then you claim that people are getting more and more intolerant to gluten by the day, according to some studies. This seems a little incoherent.

    I would also say that, if a cave person found a stalk of wheat? He’d eat the stalk of wheat. He probably wouldn’t be choosy. The picky paleo diet is only convenient or even possible in a privileged nation that has an over-complicated and environmentally-disastrous factory farm livestock system. This is a main reason why I’m circumspect about it.

    Finally, gluten is getting a terrible rap lately. Gluten is wheat protein. For vegetarians (full disclosure, I’m veg), wheat protein is a really good thing to eat. If gluten inflames your gut, don’t eat it. But people can react to any number of things. In my case, meat does not agree with me at all. I always find it interesting that meat is unique in that, when people give it up, if they eat it again, they feel like crap. Yet meat is somehow the miracle paleo food? Nobody ever doubled over from carrots after having not eaten them for a while.

  • Pingback: Spartan Performance » CROSSFIT SUFFOLK: Powered By SPARTAN PERFORMANCE()

  • Pingback: BlogSity Create Your Own Blog | Stuff to Read While You’re Pretending to Work: Success, Gluten, and Saturated Fat()

  • http://daybreakrun.com/ JoeFilipowicz

    I wouldn’t consider myself “officially” gluten intolerant or celiac. However, once I dropped gluten a few years back and lost 7 lbs of bloat without any other changes, I was sold. Even now, I feel “hungover” after I let it back in on occassion. I’m sold.

  • Pingback: How To Turn Frustration Into Fat Loss | Vic Magary()

  • JJ

    I gave up gluten and have stopped farting! Amiracle if you ask me. Energy up! Sleeping better! No bloating after eating! I also don’t eat any gluten free breads or pastas. But I do eat rice and potatoes (usually russets and sweet yams). Will never go back to eating wheat. The first two weeks when I stopped eating wheat, I went through cravings for bread and donuts, but then they went away. Now I find the smell of yeasty bread somewhat repulsive. Go figure.

  • http://amagneticlife.com Steve

    This is fantastic! I’ve had so many people ask me this very same question and I’ve started my own diet journal online now to help others have ideas about how to live more healthy. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to re-blog this post on my site. I’ll be sure to give you credit and send folks your way. This is just too good not to share. If you don’t want me to share it, please let me know and I’ll be glad to take it down. Thanks again for the info! (and the laughs)

  • Jack

    I have been a diagnosed coeliac for 9 years, and in that time have talked to many specialists about gluten free diets and its effects. This article addresses elective gluten free dieting quite well, but for a c0eliac the article either misses or mistakes a few key facts. Oats do in fact contain gluten (some claim it is a different sort of gluten, and therefore should not be counted), and in australia products containing oats are subject to the same terms to be classed as gluten free as flour, barley and rye are (detectable gluten must be below 20ppm).
    A great resource for new coeliacs is http://www.coeliac.org.au/ they have lots of information on diets. They even publish a pocket book which is also an app, which gives a list of ingredients and if they are gluten free or not.
    The main thing that i cant stress enough is seek professional medical advice. Steve does his best to find the accurate information, but nothing beats a doctor

  • Pingback: Going Paleo? 5 Things You Need to Know. | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: Is Diet Coke Bad For You? What About Artificial Sweeteners? | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: What’s the deal with GMOs? Are they ACTUALLY unsafe? | Nerd Fitness()

  • nicoli

    Great information ,thank you

    Best Paleo recipes

  • Pingback: How Ron the Lay Pastor Lost 100 lbs | Nerd Fitness()

  • http://www.gethealthey.plus Daniel Moton

    My name is Brian and I am the creator of The 3 Week Diet. I have spent years researching and working with nutritionists and dieticians to develop a diet system that is so advanced and effective that it is able to help you lose 1 lb of pure body fat every single day. Over the course of 3 weeks on the diet, you can lose more than 20 pounds of fat off your belly, butt, hips, and thighs and achieve the body of your dreams with little to no exercise involved. But how is this possible?

  • Pingback: Apparently Everything Will Kill You. Yes, Even That. | Nerd Fitness()

  • Pingback: Is Rice Healthy For Me? Does White vs Brown Rice Matter? | Nerd Fitness()

  • http://biodagar.com Leticia

    Fun fact: Oats contamination can begin at harvest, not just in processing. Many grain farmers grow more than one type of grain. Many farmers also don’t clean their headers between harvesting crops. If the header isn’t clean, boom! Wheat or rye in your oat harvest.

  • miranda

    I have gluten intolerance. I used to have diarrhea everyday without fail after I stopped eating grains for 1 week. Now I don’t eat wheat often, birthdays being the only exception, and I feel much better. I say wheat because I didn’t really eat rye or barley. I feel less tired and I have more energy. AS for the moods and other such thing. I simply do not see any improvement apart from the one I did. Anyways feeling much better as a whole and just have more energy.