Gluten-free diets have become the new fad. But do all the people who go gluten-free really need to? And will anyone and everyone truly benefit from going gluten-free, as some people claim? What’s driving the controversy?
First of all, here’s a little introduction to gluten. Gluten is a binding protein found in many grains, especially in wheat, barley, and rye. It is what makes dough sticky. Gluten-containing bread has been a dietary staple across cultures for many generations, and only lately has it become controversial.
Origins of the gluten controversy
Mostly, the gluten controversy revolves around the genetic modification of seeds, which produces genetically modified organisms (or G.M.O.s). The genetic modification of wheat is particularly controversial.
Some researchers say that today’s wheat contains much more gluten than the wheat of yesteryear. In the push to increase food supply to keep up with an ever-expanding population, the agriculture industry has not shied away from genetically modifying seeds in order to make crops heartier or more appealing to eat.
The genetic code of these seeds are also altered to produce more yield (and thus more revenue). Indeed, genetic modification has increased farm yields, and made farms much more productive and efficient. Genetic modification is also responsible for the new and improved always ripe apples at your local supermarket.
However, there are many negative side effects to these genetic alterations, such as the fact that genetically-modified wheat is toxic and can actually make a person “addicted” to eating it because of how it interacts with the brain. These effects are what prompted the writing of the bestselling book Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis.
Through his research and experience as a cardiologist, Dr. Davis found out that cutting wheat (and gluten, in general) significantly improved the health of thousands of his patients. He took his findings and created what is known popularly known as the Wheat Belly Diet.
How has genetic modification affected wheat in particular?
One ambitious researcher, Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo clinic, wanted to see how gluten-containing foods have changed in the past century.
However, instead of examining the food, he examined human blood! He compared the blood taken from 9,000 Air Force recruits right after World War II to blood from people of a similar age living today.
What he found is astonishing. Only two-tenths of one percent of the soldiers had antibodies to the enzyme of transglutaminase (a reliable marker for Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten consumption).
But a relatively substantial one percent of the modern sample had these antibodies. That’s an unprecedented (and frightening!) five-fold increase in 60 years! What will the percentage be in another 60 years?
At first, you might wonder whether human blood has simply evolved to have a slightly different composition. But evolution takes thousands of years—not 60! In order for this 5-fold increase in Celiac susceptibility to occur, something major had to have precipitated it.
Something about the gluten in our food supply is different—more pernicious. So pernicious, in fact, that many human bodies develop antibodies to fight its proper digestion and absorption.
Gluten is hard to avoid in today’s society
That being said, it is true that right now only one percent of people are walking around with a blood marker indicative of celiac disease. So why did the percentage of Americans who avoid gluten triple between 2009 and 2014? Surely not everybody who is on a gluten-free diet has celiac disease.
An increasing number of Americans are going gluten-free because they buy into its purported health benefits. After all, they must firmly believe in it to do it, because in Western society it is by no means easy to execute. That’s because gluten is found in many of the most common and widely-consumed foods that are sold at the supermarket.
Restaurants are no exception, either. Most of the fast food and grab-on-the-go options contain gluten, even if it is hidden. And don’t think that people can avoid gluten by eating Americanized Asian food. Most soy sauce and other glazes contain gluten in disguise (i.e., called by another name).
Who need to cut gluten from their diets?
Because gluten-free living is so difficult, let’s consider whether you are one of the people who can benefit from it. The following groups of people should restrict gluten intake:
1. People with Celiac Disease
First and foremost, this is the group of people who need to stay as far away as possible from gluten. About one percent of the population have celiac disease, and it can be very dangerous if undiagnosed or ignored. For people with celiac, gluten is so incredibly damaging to the small intestine.
In fact, celiac is an autoimmune disease, which means that gluten causes the immune system to go haywire, attacking healthy cells and tissues. It can be extremely painful and cause nutrient deficiencies and irritable bowl.
But for people with celiac, staying away from bread isn’t enough. Cross-contamination is a huge problem because even trace amounts of gluten cause a damaging immune reaction.
People with celiac disease who live with others who regularly consume gluten should buy their own set of kitchenware, so that they do not risk cross-contamination. Also, people with celiac should only eat at restaurants that ensure that food is not cross-contaminated.
Here’s a very comprehensive informational video that explains the causes and symptoms of celiac disease, we as well as how to diagnose and treat it:
2. People who have a gluten allergy
Do not confuse celiac disease with a gluten allergy. They are not the same. While celiac is an autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine, a gluten allergy is an allergic reaction to gliadin, a component of gluten.
As with any allergy, an allergic reaction to gluten, can cause hives, rashes, congestion, trouble breathing, and even anaphylactic shock—depending on the severity of the allergy and the amount of gluten consumed.
Both a gluten allergy and celiac are an overreaction by the immune system, but they manifest in different ways.
People with a gluten allergy should also take all necessary precautions to avoid gluten—even the drastic measures necessary to prevent cross-contamination and exposure.
3. People who have a gluten sensitivity
It is estimated that 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity. But a study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of people who avoid gluten because they think they are gluten sensitive can actually tolerate gluten. Perhaps some people who are gluten sensitive do not realize it, and others who do not have a gluten sensitivity are overly cautious.
Why is a sensitivity so difficult to diagnose? Like an allergy, a sensitivity is a blood-borne reaction to a foreign substance. But because a sensitivity reaction is carried out by different, slower-acting antibodies than an allergic reaction, a sensitivity is much more difficult to diagnose.
These slower-acting antibodies may not cause a noticeable reaction until days after eating the triggering food. By that point, the person may not remember what they ate to cause it, or may not connect that food with the symptoms.
The symptoms themselves are so subtle that they may be ignored. Food sensitivity symptoms include brain fog, fatigue, bloating, anxiety, and headaches. A person may easily attribute these insidious symptoms to other causes. But if allowed to persist, food sensitivities can turn into allergies.
So how can you identify if you have a food sensitivity? One way is by completing a 21-day elimination diet in which you completely eliminate gluten from the diet for 3 weeks, and then add it back in to see if there is a reaction. But this is not a foolproof method because, again, sensitivity symptoms may not manifest for several days.
The best way to diagnose a food sensitivity is through blood testing. Very few labs perform sensitivity testing, but Biohealth Laboratories and Genova Diagnostics are good choices. You will need a doctor to order a food sensitivity test.
4. People who have a gluten intolerance.
A gluten intolerance is yet another harmful bodily reaction to gluten. But unlike an allergy and a sensitivity, which are blood-borne responses, an intolerance is a digestive system reaction to irritating foods. Intolerances are the least harmful of the three responses, but they should nonetheless be addressed.
Unless you have a stomach made of steel, you have no doubt experienced the symptoms of a food intolerance. Almost everyone has a food intolerance every now and then. An intolerance is indigestion, or an inability to properly digest food. Symptoms include gas, bloating, and an upset stomach.
People who have a gluten intolerance may be able to eat gluten here or there and not have too many problems. Certainly, eating gluten is not as dire for people with an intolerance as it is for people with a sensitivity or an allergy.
But if unchecked, an intolerance can break down the intestinal wall, allowing food particles to leak into the blood stream, causing future sensitivities, allergies, or even widespread inflammation and disease.
5. People who have chronic inflammation and chronic disease
Other people who may want to consider weaning off of gluten is people who have chronic health issues. Chronic health issues are a sign that something in the diet or environment is awry.
Gluten consumption has been linked to increased levels of bodily inflammation. Chronic inflammation is at the root of chronic disease. Eliminating gluten may be a step in the right direction. It is an inexpensive treatment method to try, and it may help manage your symptoms.
6. People who remain bloated and overweight, despite trying many weight loss methods
If you have exhausted diet and exercise strategies and you are still bloated and overweight, there is likely something in your environment or diet that is affecting your weight.
Whether it is mold or toxin exposure, gluten exposure, or something else is hard to say. But your gluten intake is something you can control. Restricting gluten might be worth a try.
Should you go gluten free today?
If you belong to one of these 6 groups (especially the first 3), you are someone who may benefit from a gluten-free diet. Even if you are not a part of these groups, but you want to restrict gluten, go ahead! It’s not a crime.
Just remember that any gluten exposure can have an impact for several days—maybe even weeks. So there is no such thing as “just a little bit.”
Be sure to consult with a healthcare practitioner or nutritionist before you limit gluten intake. Gluten often comprises a significant proportion of daily fiber and Caloric intake, so you will need to decide what will fill the void in your diet.
If you do not replace gluten-containing grains with other whole grains, you will likely be fiber deficient. The good bacteria in your intestines need fiber to be healthy! Not to mention the lethargy that can accompany a diet that is too low in fiber-rich carbs.
Going gluten-free is not necessary for many people, but for people with celiac, gluten allergy, gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, chronic disease, or weight management issues, it is a step in the right direction. It just goes to show that fad does not equal bad!