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What is gluten and how does it act in our body?

Gluten is a protein found naturally in grains such as wheat, barley or rye and a little in oats. This is responsible for the smooth texture of many foods among other culinary benefits. As explained in Healthline, it has unique qualities that make it a frequent ingredient in the industrial preparation of many foods, although products without it are more fashionable than ever, for the benefit of intolerant people of course.

However, the issue does not stop at a question of tolerance. Fashion, the cult of the body and the search for a healthier lifestyle have generated confusion around the subject. To the point that it is a frequent topic on TikTok and other social networks among influencers, chefs, doctors and users who share their experience.

Some argue that gluten is harmful only for intolerant people, while others say that we should all avoid it at all costs, because it is inflammatory, fattening, or is related to the appearance of diseases and discomforts in ordinary people.

Is gluten really bad?

A reader wrote to me, after reading a recent article about the real benefits of pasta and why we should include it in moderation in our diet, that the real problem with pasta was gluten and she even claimed that it was a poison for humanity. As far as I know, gluten affects people, a minority, who are sensitive to this ingredient, allergic, and intolerant. But from there to investing a fortune in gluten free products for no reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

We consulted with Dr. Rossana De Jongh Delgado, a nutritionist, specialist in clinical nutrition, overweight and obesity, and she explains that like many other types of protein, such as cow’s milk, eggs, or in general, it could generate a response allergic.

A young woman on a gluten-free diet says no, thanks to a toast at a cafe
A young woman on a gluten-free diet says no, thanks to a toast at a cafe

In this way there are two conditions in which gluten really represents health problems. One of them is gluten allergy, which can manifest itself in two ways. The first is celiac disease, in which the digestive system reacts against gluten and there is an inflammatory response from the immune system.

“This means that we have antibodies that cause a reaction against gluten and, in this case, our intestine becomes more permeable, with which gluten can represent a problem at the level of the normal architecture of the intestine. The person who has celiac disease, even with minimal amounts, may have a reaction, so the formal indication for them is to avoid gluten as the only therapy”, explains the specialist.

Among the symptoms of celiac disease are diarrhea, anemia, a break in the growth curve, among others. Unfortunately, this disease has no cure, but it can be controlled effectively once diagnosed by a specialist and following the appropriate instructions.

The second allergic manifestation is the so-called non-celiac allergy, which is also an immune system response but with which rhinitis, dry cough, or skin symptoms such as eczema appear.

Gluten free food. Various pasta, bread and sandwiches on wooden background from top view. Healthy and diet concept.
Gluten free food. Various pasta, bread and sandwiches on wooden background from top view. Healthy and diet concept.

Dr. De Johng explains that the other condition in which gluten can pose a health problem is intolerance to gluten, like many other foods. In this case, the digestive part of the body reacts against gluten due to the lack of an enzyme that processes it. “In this case, what happens is that the enterocytes, the cells of the digestive system, lack an enzyme to properly process gluten, which is why it cannot be properly digested and this manifests itself with gas and inflammation. However, this does not happen systematically, every time someone consumes gluten”.

Regarding the trend that gluten is fattening or has more or fewer calories, the expert clarifies that like all proteins, gluten provides 4 calories per gram. “This means that one gram of chicken protein, one gram of egg protein and one gram of gluten provides 4 calories, which has nothing to do with weight gain. It should be noted that we are talking specifically about protein, not about the complete food that contains other nutrients.”

Gluten is not fattening. Like all protein, it provides only 4 calories per gram, but it is contained in foods that should be eaten in moderation, such as pasta, pizza and cakes, among others.
Gluten is not fattening. Like all protein, it provides only 4 calories per gram, but it is contained in foods that should be eaten in moderation, such as pasta, pizza and cakes, among others.

In this sense, De Johng says that what happens is that we associate gluten with bread, with pasta, or pizza, and we are seeing a food that globally could have more calories than another and that is when the tendency arises to say that products with gluten They get fat, and it’s not necessarily so. If we eat the right portions of these foods, or compose your plate in a balanced way, there would be no major problem in terms of weight gain.

“If a person eats a baguette for breakfast, with ham, cheese and other ingredients; mid-morning eats a couple of cereal bars; at noon you have lunch with a plate of pasta and a dessert, and you have cookies and dinner with pizza, you will have a significant caloric intake that will make you gain weight, but it is not about gluten. If you eat under the same scheme, but everything prepared without gluten, the caloric intake and weight gain will be just as important, ”says De Johng, adding that in some cases processed gluten-free products have even more additives than the original version.

“For example, a normal bread will have flour, water, yeast and salt as ingredients, while a gluten-free plan will need other ingredients so that the dough has elasticity and grows, thickeners, flavorings, fats. The same goes for cookies, cereals, among many others, ”he notes.

In some cases processed gluten-free products have more additives than the original version. For example, a bread has water, flour, salt, and yeast, while a gluten-free bread may have thickeners, flavorings, and other additives.
In some cases processed gluten-free products have more additives than the original version. For example, a bread has water, flour, salt, and yeast, while a gluten-free bread may have thickeners, flavorings, and other additives.

Finally, the doctor explains that, if the person has a gluten contraindication, the most advisable thing is to resort, in principle, to naturally gluten-free sources, such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, instead of opting for processed foods.

“Generally, diseases associated with gluten have two diagnostic peaks. The first may arise during childhood. For example, a child between the ages of four and six who is not growing as he should, has weight loss, has unexplained diarrhea, or has unexplained rhinitis. And the late peak is between 20 and 40 years of age, but the manifestations are going to be the same”.

It is important to highlight that the diagnosis of these conditions is not made only with clinical manifestations, such as stomach pain or diarrhea, but it is necessary to have blood tests to rule out, endoscopies, biopsies and evaluate if there is a lesion, or if the intestine inflamed for another reason and is making them more sensitive to gluten.