Understanding Gluten

hpUnderstandingGlutenThe gluten-free craze has swept the nation due to enticing health claims.   Many of these claims, however, are not evidence-based.  While gluten-free foods are crucial for some individuals, the general population can safely consume products with gluten.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein that is found in wheat, rye, and barley that gives baked goods structure and elasticity.  Gluten can be found in any product made with one of these grains.  This can include foods such as bread, sweets, french fries, salad dressings, and beer.  Even non-food items like toothpaste and cosmetics may contain gluten!

What foods are gluten-free?

There are many whole foods that are naturally gluten free.  Fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts, rice, potatoes, quinoa, corn, and soy do not contain any gluten.  Often gluten is either added to products or comes in contact with food during processing.

Is gluten harmful?

For the majority of the population, gluten is not harmful.  However, there are two types of people for whom gluten is a concern – people with celiac disease and people with gluten sensitivity.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body starts attacking itself when gluten is consumed.  As gluten travels through the intestine, the body sees gluten as a foreign object and responds in a way that damages the intestinal lining.  Gluten sensitivity is not an autoimmune disorder (so there is no damage to the intestine), but it results in symptoms including bloating, cramps, gas, diarrhea, and fatigue.

Why do people choose to avoid gluten?

While only 21 million Americans have either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, almost 4 ½ times that many people work toward eliminating gluten completely from their diets.  Why is this?  Many people believe that going gluten-free is healthier and helps with weight loss and allergies.  However, there is no evidence showing that eating gluten-free without a medical reason promotes better health.  In fact, gluten-free products are often higher in calories and sugar than regular products.  Avoiding gluten could also lead you to consume inadequate amounts of certain nutrients like iron, calcium, thiamin, and folate, that you need every day.  Additionally, gluten-free products cost more than regular products and can have less favorable textures and flavors, decreasing the pleasure of eating.

Should I eat gluten-free?

If you do not have a medical reason to avoid gluten, there are no proven benefits to remove gluten from your eating pattern.  Gluten may actually play a positive role in your body by helping the immune system, lowering blood pressure, and keeping cholesterol and blood lipid levels under control.

How do I make healthier grain choices?

Whether you need to eat gluten-free or not, improve your food choices by selecting whole grains and consuming foods like whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, and oats!


Try one of the recipes below which feature whole grains, or replace a refined grain with a whole grain product this week (i.g. replace white pasta with whole wheat pasta, white rice with brown rice/quinoa/barley).

Cashew Chicken Quinoa Bake

Prep Time: 15 minutes / Cook Time: 55 minutes / Makes: 6 servings


1 cup quinoa, rinsed and uncooked
1 cup yellow onion, diced
2 medium red bell peppers, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 cups broccoli, chopped
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, diced into bite-sized pieces
1 cup cashews, unsalted
Green onion, for garnish

1/3 cup hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup water


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and spray a casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Place uncooked quinoa on the bottom of the casserole dish and layer with diced onion, red bell pepper, and broccoli.  Place diced uncooked chicken on top of veggies.
  3. Prepare sauce by mixing together hoisin sauce, minced garlic, soy sauce, ginger, and water.
  4. Evenly pour sauce over chicken breast.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes uncovered.  Remove from oven, top with cashews, and bake for another 10 minutes.
  6. Garnish with green onion, if desired, and enjoy!

Nutrition Information Per Serving (Serving Size: 1/6 of recipe)

Calories: 397, Total Fat: 15 grams, Saturated Fat: 2 grams, Sodium: 539 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 40 grams, Fiber: 6 grams, Sugar: 10 grams, Protein: 27 grams

Recipe adapted from: Fit Foodie Finds

Pineapple Chicken "Fried" Rice

Prep time: 5 minutes / Cook Time: 10 minutes / Makes: 3 servings


½ small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup cooked chicken, diced
2 cups frozen carrots and peas, thawed
1 cup chopped pineapple, fresh or canned
3 cups pre-cooked brown rice
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce


  1. Using a little vegetable oil in a saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic until softened.
  2. Add in chicken and allow it to cook until warmed.
  3. Add in carrots and peas, pineapple, cold brown rice, and soy sauce.  Stir to combine.   Sauté everything together until just heated through and soy sauce is evenly distributed.
  4. Divide the rice between three bowls and top with green onions, red pepper flakes, or any garnishes you would like.

Nutrition Information Per Serving (Serving Size: 1/3 of recipe)

Calories: 431, Total Fat: 6 grams, Saturated Fat: 2 grams, Sodium: 517 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 65 grams, Fiber: 8 grams, Sugar: 11 grams, Protein: 30 grams

Recipe slightly adapted from: The Conscientious Eater