Do I Need to Worry about Gluten?

You may have noticed many products on your grocery store aisles that claim to be “gluten-free.”

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, rye and barley as well as products made with these ingredients. Gluten gives the stretchy texture to bread. People with celiac disease, gluten intolerance and wheat allergies get sick when they eat food containing wheat or gluten.

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying villi—the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine. It is both a disease of malabsorption—meaning nutrients are not absorbed properly—and an abnormal immune reaction to gluten. It runs in families. According to the National Institutes of Health, it affects one in every 141 of us.

However, many people who do not have these conditions are trying to eat gluten-free because they believe it will help them lose weight or give them energy.

A gluten-free diet is not necessary for the general public, and it can make it more difficult to eat a heart-healthy diet, which includes whole grains such as whole wheat bread and pasta.

Products sold with the gluten-free label may also give a sense that the food item is healthier, which is only true if you have a problem with gluten, but fewer than 1 percent of Americans do. Many gluten-free food products may contain high levels of sugar, salt, saturated fat or trans fat. Check the label.

The American Heart Association does not have a formal position on a gluten-free diet, but it does recommend eating more heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and proteins, which are naturally gluten-free. Eating that way introduces more nutrients and more fiber into your meals. Higher fiber helps reduce the risk for heart disease.

Here are a few foods that are naturally gluten-free and heart healthy.

Beans (plain) • Rice • Buckwheat groats • Corn • Chicken

Eggs • Fish • Fruits • Legumes • Millet • Nuts (unsalted)

Potatoes • Quinoa • Soy • Tapioca • Vegetables

Milk (fat-free and low-fat—less than 1 percent)

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