The term “gluten” is derived from the Latin word for “glue.” This substance gives dough its elasticity, and makes it sticky – a property from which the name is derived. Gluten is the umbrella term generally used to refer to a family of proteins, the main ones being glutenin and gliadin. Gluten provides a sticky consistency to, and maintains the structure of, the food it’s found in – namely carbohydrate-rich grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Oats don’t inherently contain gluten, but some facilities producing oats may be cross-contaminated with other glutinous grains, so beware of products not specifically labelled “gluten-free.”
While some people tolerate gluten in food just fine, there is a rising trend of gluten sensitivity, resulting in a spectrum of intolerances. Celiac disease is the most severe intolerance and is considered autoimmune in nature. It manifests as chronic inflammation in the lining of the small intestine, and malabsorption of important nutrients, resulting in anemia and other disorders. Antibodies are formed against the gluten molecules, with the most minute traces of gluten triggering severe digestive symptoms.
Although Celiac disease is fairly rare, a lot of people experience low-level inflammation in the gut due to gluten consumption. It can interfere with the “tightness” of the gap junctions and the health of the microvilli lining the intestinal wall, which are responsible for proper assimilation of nutrients and maintaining optimal immune function. This phenomenon is referred to as “leaky gut,” and can lead to hyperpermeability, with undesired materials passing to the bloodstream, such as undigested food particles, waste toxins and bacteria.
For a lot of people with digestive distress, it may be a good idea to steer clear of gluten, at least for a period of time, to give the mucosal layer a chance to heal. That said, gluten-free substitutes must still be evaluated for their nutritional value. Just because it’s gluten free, does not mean it’s still not “junk”!
Bottom line: Carbohydrates as a class are not something to avoid at all costs, but certain populations should steer clear of certain carbohydrates. People with any level of gluten-sensitivity or intolerance should avoid carbohydrate-rich grains such as wheat and rye, and all the products that contain them (pasta, dough, cereals, baked goods, bread, and many processed snack foods).
That said, there’s a whole lot of healthy produce that contain carbohydrates and are tolerated by most people perfectly fine! Many vegetables and fruits have varying levels of carbohydrates and are good sources of fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. We should all absolutely aim to get these types of carbs into our diets. Fiber-rich veggies will actually help us lose weight by enhancing our elimination pathways in the large intestine, and help bulk up our stool for easier and more regular bowel movements. In addition, fiber helps regulate blood sugar and potential metabolic issues such as insulin sensitivity.
The most important tip to maintaining a healthy weight and optimal health is not avoiding carbs like the plague, but opting for the right carbs for your body. Additionally, I can’t stress enough one other factor when it comes to reaching one’s goal weight: mindful eating! As simple as it sounds, slowing down and consciously tuning in to the act of eating does wonders for enhancing our digestion and absorption.
Moreover, if you’re the one preparing the food (or at least present during the preparation while your partner or friend does the chopping and prepping), you get to signal to your brain and body that food is in your near future! In other words, your sense of smell and anticipation for the coming meal will encourage pre-digestive processes such as enzyme secretion in the salivary glands, liver and gallbladder. Then, when you sit down (note: NOT eat on the go!), and savor each morsel, and chew each bite thoroughly (chew your food til it’s liquid, as the saying goes) – you enjoy your food more, and often end up eating less! Often, saying a prayer or giving gratitude for the meal you’re about to receive also goes a long way to mindfulness and healthiness, as well as overall happiness.