An Idiot’s Guide to Gluten

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Ever since the gluten-free trend emerged, more and more people have been trying to get ahold of gluten-free products, and the market has certainly delivered; Egypt now has an entirely gluten-free café, and some supermarkets even have a special gluten-free section.

While this is a game changer for those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or wheat allergies, a lot of people whose bodies have no issues with gluten have decided to join the trend without doing their research.

So, what is gluten? And why is the world so keen on demonizing it?

Gluten is essentially a family of proteins, most commonly found in wheat. It’s also found in other foods like rye and barley, but let’s focus on wheat since it is a staple in Egyptian households. From the bread we use for bean sandwiches to the semolina used to make basbousa, it’s difficult not to find wheat in many Egyptian dishes.

Gluten consists of two proteins: glutenin (which isn’t the issue here), and gliadin (which is the problematic ingredient for some). The name glu-ten is actually based on the glue-like consistency of wet dough, since gluten forms when flour is mixed with water (think of the sticky consistency of pizza dough or bread dough).

Gluten is an issue for some people, namely for those with the aforementioned conditions, in addition to those suffering from certain conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or autism. In fact, a staggering 55 medical conditions could occur from eating gluten. While that number might make you want to quit gluten right now, it’s important not to be hasty. Many professionals say that cutting out gluten can actually cause more harm than good, because people end up missing out on important substances like fiber, minerals and vitamins. According to Katherine Tallmadge, dietician and author of Diet Simple, gluten-free foods are often stripped of nutrients. WebMD shares the same opinion, recommending that gluten-free labels should always be checked to make sure gluten isn’t replaced with sugar or fat.

Tallmadge doesn’t shun the idea of a gluten-free lifestyle, but she suggests that if you’re going for a gluten-free diet, you need to do it right. Meaning, you’ll need to be very wary of what you’re allowing into your body, and you’ll have to make sure you’re getting your fiber and nutrients from other sources.

The problem is that some people wrongly attribute weight loss to going gluten-free, when the real reason is that they’ve cut down on desserts and junk food. Another issue is that people with no gluten issues whatsoever end up going gluten-free and it doesn’t help their health one bit; all it does is force them to follow a more restrictive and expensive lifestyle.

It all sounds confusing, we know. To go gluten-free or to not go gluten-free? The answer is simple: if you feel fine after eating a pizza and don’t have any distressing gastrointestinal symptoms, continue happily ingesting that gluten!

If, on the other hand, you feel like gluten might be affecting your physical or psychological health, get yourself checked by a specialist before making any drastic life changes. If it turns out gluten is indeed the culprit behind your symptoms, start shopping smart and don’t just opt for the expensive gluten-free label.

In general, it’s helpful to keep a food diary to see what foods aggravate any symptoms you might experience; human bodies are all different and there’s no one-size-fits-all here. While gluten might bug your neighbor, your kryptonite might end up being beans. You’ll never know until you listen to your body.

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