There is a lot of press in the media these days about gluten and whether or not we should be eating it. Many health experts have strong opinions on both sides with a black or white approach to the importance of eliminating it or making it a staple in the diet. There was even a hilarious South Park episode about the controversy. Much of the recent research makes a good case for avoiding or minimizing our exposure to gluten, although it is still a little fuzzy as to why we suddenly need to avoid something that has traditionally been so widely consumed. I also need to make a disclaimer and say that what I write today on this subject could be a little different from what I write next year. As new information and research comes out health advice evolves and approaches and treatments will be adjusted, especially on a topic where so much remains unknown. Below are my own observations around gluten, and the best recommendations that I can give based on what I have seen and read so far.
What it is and who should avoid it
Those with celiac disease and other confirmed gluten sensitivities should stay away from it. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where eating gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. This leads to painful GI symptoms such as diarrhea and bloating, and can also cause brain fog, headaches, weakness and malabsorption of essential nutrients. If left untreated, there are serious consequences. A gluten sensitivity is when one has similar symptoms but tests negative for celiac. Check out these recent findings on non celiac gluten sensitivity. Some experts in the alternative health community recommend avoiding gluten with any autoimmune condition such as Hashimotos, Lupus, or MS to prevent the progression of these conditions and allow the immune system to calm down. If you suspect you are sensitive to gluten there are tests, but because of the cost, high incidence of false negatives, and how invasive they can be many just choose to see how they feel without it. If you suspect you are sensitive to gluten, try going without it for 3 weeks and see how you feel. After this period of avoidance add gluten back in. Based on what happens after reintroducing it, you may have your answer.
Here is where it gets a little gray
Some people who have difficulty tolerating gluten have reported that they feel fine when they eat wheat that has been sprouted or fermented. Some examples of such products include Ezekiel or sourdough breads. A possible reason for this is the decreased amount of phytic acid. Less phytic acid makes these foods more digestible and their nutrients easier to absorb. On a side note, phytic acid is another reason I am not a fan of gluten and grain free foods made from nut flours. Even though a handful of nuts is healthy for most people, the quantity of nuts or nut flours in many “substitute” baked goods can be hard on the intestines. Many sprouted grain products are more expensive, however if you cut way back on bread and flour your wallet won’t feel the impact of that added cost anyways…or you could try making your own!
Also worth pondering
The wheat in most breads and pastas is different today. Overtime hybridization has resulted in wheat that contains much more gluten than wheat that was grown ~ 50 years ago. For those of you that enjoy reading research, here is an interesting study looking at the varieties of wheat and the different immune responses from people with celiac disease. It is also possible that there are other toxic triggers in our environment that are making us more vulnerable to other conditions that are often made worse by excess gluten consumption, such as the increasing amount of pesticides used on most wheat crops. At this time there is not a lot of agreement on underlying causes of gluten intolerance and the effects of pesticides and increased gluten in the bread supply are hotly debated topics between scientists. Until we know more, use your own judgement on what you feel best on. If you are interested in trying wheat products made with Einkorn flour which have less gluten, try breads or pastas from Jovial Foods.
Is it a dosage issue?
So many of us eat cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, then pasta for dinner…every day. One expert, Dr. Alessio Fasano has shown through his research that eating gluten, whether or not you are intolerant to it, triggers the release of a chemical called zonulin. Increased levels of zonulin cause cells in the GI tract to break apart and allow substances such as food molecules and bacteria to pass through the intestinal barrier. Overtime this leads to inflammation, food sensitivities and other related conditions. These findings make a good case for at least cutting back on gluten and including other nutrient dense foods instead.
My own observations on the gluten free bandwagon
In the last 10 years, in my personal and professional life there’s a scenario I have seen repeatedly. For one reason or another, a patient, client, or friend needs to or wishes to give up eating gluten. They eat less bread, baked goods, grains and instead prepare more of their own meals and eat more foods that are naturally gluten free such as meats, fresh produce, nuts, and seeds in order to avoid gluten. Usually they feel better, might lose weight, have improved digestion and enjoy other health benefits. But sooner or later they discover that there are a number of gluten free convenience products to take advantage of, eliminating the need for them to deprive themselves of bread and other baked goods they previously enjoyed. When these gluten free junk foods are added back in people often gain back weight, don’t feel as good, and uncomfortable digestive symptoms start creeping up on them again. Was it adding back grains? Eating more processed foods that are low in protein, fiber and other energizing nutrients? It could be a combination of both.
Whether or not you want to eliminate gluten, filling up on nutrient poor processed foods isn’t improving the health of your body, your gut, or your life. For those who do need to avoid gluten, having gluten free substitutes on hand for special occasions is great, but there is no reason to have them every day. Even if you are able to tolerate wheat, eating large servings of it at every meal and snack could still negatively affect your protective intestinal barrier and displace nutrients you could be getting from healthier foods. When we cut back on processed flour products (yes, even the gluten free stuff), we not only improve the health of our gut but we leave room for more beneficial foods in our diets. For the sake of your gut and your overall health, try including more vegetables, fruits, high quality protein, and nourishing fats in place of excess flour products.
For more information on celiac disease and non celiac gluten sensitivity check out http://celiac.org.