Gluten is a type of elastic grain protein that helps wheat, rye and barley hold their shape. Because of its glue-like properties, gluten is often added to other food products—pasta, sauces, crackers, baked goods—to thicken or bind those products together.
Look closely at that list of foods, and it’s easy to see why some people who ditch gluten experience a wondrously slimming, invigorating health boost. Those sorts of quick-digesting refined carbohydrates tend to be high in unhealthy sugars. And if you’re like the average American, more than half of your daily calorie intake comes from those insalubrious goodies.
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“These kinds of junk foods and refined carbohydrates promote weight gain and diabetes and disease,” says Dr. Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine and a gluten researcher at Mayo Clinic. So if you’re eating a lot of cookies, crackers and other grain-based snack foods, any diet that limits your intakes of them is bound to do your health some good. “But for those who don’t suffer from celiac disease, gluten isn’t inherently bad, and gluten-free foods aren’t inherently healthy,” he says.