What Exactly Is Gluten and Why Should You Go Gluten-Free?


What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is also found in Triticale, which is a hybrid of rye and barley. Other foods, like oats, may not contain gluten naturally, but can be cross-contaminated with gluten in the manufacturing process. Eating gluten-free means avoiding all foods that contain gluten, even in trace amounts.


Why Do People Go on a Gluten-Free Diet?

People with Celiac Disease (CD) cannot eat gluten because it causes their immune system to attack and damage their small intestines by destroying the small finger-like projections called microvilli. When this happens, they are no longer able to absorb nutrients from food like a healthy person can, causing a multitude of health problems in addition to malnutrition.


For instance, many CD patients cannot tolerate drinking milk because the enzyme lactase, which digests the milk sugar called lactose, is made on the tips of the microvilli. Others may not have digestion issues, but they can suffer from depression, anemia, fatigue, joint pain or even infertility.


Some people without CD eat a gluten-free diet because they have a different type of intolerance to gluten that might cause stomach upset, headaches, or they may even experience allergy-like symptoms such as itchy eyes. These people often find significant relief from avoiding gluten in their diet. In fact, early research suggests that a small percentage of people with schizophrenia may benefit from a gluten-free diet, although more research is needed in this area.


Is Going Gluten-Free Healthy?

Although eating a gluten-free diet because it’s a fad isn’t necessarily healthier, people who have CD have to eat gluten-free for the rest of their lives in order to heal their intestinal microvilli and avoid long-term health problems.


For these people, even very small amounts of gluten can damage their intestines, or even give them an itchy, blistery skin rash called Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH). Some people with this rash never experience full-blown CD symptoms and are simply diagnosed with the condition through a skin biopsy.


People with other gluten intolerances, or gluten allergies, often feel better when they go on a gluten-free diet. Regardless of the reason you go on a gluten-free diet, you will find that gluten-free products can be quite limited in some areas, and they are often more expensive than their traditional counter parts.


Are There Any Health Risks to Going Gluten-Free?

One caveat is that gluten-free items often contain more fat and sugar than traditional items in order to help them taste better, which can sometimes lead to weight gain. Also, many wheat products are fortified with important nutrients like folic acid, which can be lacking otherwise in an American diet.


However, if you eat a balanced diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, you can get a balanced diet without fortified wheat, rye or barley products. Another option is to eat rice, which is fortified in the US.


How Do I Find Out If I Have Celiac Disease?

If you think you might have CD, you need to ask your physician for a simple blood test. Although this test can detect markers of celiac disease, the gold standard for diagnosis is still an intestinal biopsy. So, if you test negative, but still feel you have symptoms, you need to be proactive and request a biopsy.


If your doctor refuses to order a biopsy, you can contact a center such as the University of Chicago Medicine’s Celiac Disease Center for more information. If you feel you don’t have CD and feel you might have a gluten intolerance, you may want to contact an integrative physician or registered dietitian at ifm.org for further help.


What Can I Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Learning what you can and can’t eat on a gluten-free diet can be very challenging, because you have to learn to be a detective and read every food label for any hidden gluten or gluten-containing ingredients. For an easy reference, I often refer newly diagnosed patients to Cecelia Marketplace for a good gluten-free shopping guide.


Keep in mind that many foods are naturally gluten-free. For instance dairy, fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs are gluten-free unless they have additives containing gluten. For an easy gluten-free balanced meal, why not try this recipe from the Think Rice?


Brown Rice with Sizzling Chicken and Vegetables


  • 3 cups of hot cooked brown rice
  • 3 tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ cup of water
  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch
  • 1½ tablespoon of corn or canola oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. boneless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 small white onion, cut into small wedges (about 1/8-inch thick wedges)
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced diagonally (1 cup total)
  • 1½ cups of small broccoli florets
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces



  1. Mix soy sauce, water, honey, and cornstarch in a small bowl; set aside.
  2. Heat oil in a wok or large skillet. Add minced garlic; sauté about one minute until garlic is golden.
  3. Add chicken; cook about 5-6 minutes, then push chicken to the side.
  4. Add onions to center of skillet; cook until slightly tender and push to the side. Continue with carrots, broccoli, and peppers separately, placing each in the center of pan, cooking until slightly tender and pushing to the side.
  5. Pour soy sauce mixture into center of skillet. Leaving other ingredients at the sides of the pan, stir sauce until it thickens. Mix in with vegetables and chicken.
  6. Serve immediately over cooked brown rice.


Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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