What Does Gluten Do To Your Body?

Let's face it; going gluten-free has become trendy, as gluten-free products are upping the taste factor and quality (we're looking at you, cauliflower pizza). While your favorite products like pasta, beer, bagels, and even cosmetic products are ditching the gluten, it may leave you puzzled. Is it really healthy to bid adieu to gluten? Well, that depends.

Nutrition expert Kimberly Synder explains to Well + Good, "Approximately three million Americans have celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition that is triggered by gluten." Meanwhile, up to 20 million people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, points out registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood-Beckerman (per Well + Good).

In these cases, gluten can be harmful to the body. Because celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, the consumption of gluten causes the body to damage the small intestines (per Johns Hopkins Medicine). On the other hand, gluten-sensitive individuals don't have celiac disease. Rather, the consumption of gluten leads to symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, headaches, brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, and even depression (per Beyond Celiac). But what exactly is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that comes from rye, wheat, barley, and triticale (which is a combination of rye and barley), shares Johns Hopkins. While oats are naturally gluten-free, gluten is occasionally found in oats when these oats are processed with gluten-filled foods. It also can be extracted and added to other foods for texture or even flavor since it's a great binding agent. Think of it like an edible and tasty glue.

What happens if you stop eating gluten?

Gluten has been around for ages, and it isn't all bad for individuals who can tolerate it. Johns Hopkins obesity specialist Dr. Selvi Rajagopal points out, "For centuries, foods with gluten have been providing people with protein, soluble fiber and nutrients."

During digestion, the body uses the digestive enzyme, protease, to help break down proteins. The issue is that protease can't fully break down gluten, so this leaves undigested gluten in the small intestine (per John Hopkins). This isn't problematic for most people, but for others, it can provoke unwanted symptoms or spark a serious autoimmune response. Johns Hopkins recommends avoiding gluten if you have the following: gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, gluten ataxia, or wheat allergies.

If your body can tolerate gluten, then hopping on the gluten-free trend train may lead to some adverse effects. Ditching gluten may cause you to miss out on some healthy doses of essential fiber (via Well + Good). It can also lead to nutritional deficiencies in iron, vitamin D, folic acid, and more, since these nutrients often come from wheat, rye, and barley (per Prevention). Thus it's important to maintain a nutrient-dense and fiber-filled diet.

Believe it or not, Prevention explains that a gluten-free diet can also lead to weight gain (since many gluten-free products contain more fat, sugar, and calories), impact your gut health, and may cause you to eat more arsenic (a harmful heavy metal). For these reasons, you should talk to your doctor before going gluten-free.