Does Going Gluten-Free Equal Fabulously Healthy or Fabulously Foolish?
Gluten-free foods are all the rage these days. Gluten free breads, pizzas, muffins, cookies, cakes, crackers, pretzels and more are everywhere. If there was a good time to have Celiac Disease, today is the day. Now more than ever we can find goodies in the grocery stores labeled “Gluten-free,” advertised ostensibly in shinny, attractive print. Pop-culture abounds with messages to, “go gluten free” and the media shouts to us to, “become a gluten free goddess and embrace feeling better and more energetic.” Just as low-carb everything was in vogue during the days of Atkins and South Beach, gluten-free foods have become the new go-to products for health conscious consumers and weight loss seekers. However, does avoiding gluten really confer health benefits? For most people, the answer is an unequivocal no.
First of all, it would be helpful to us to understand what gluten is so we know what we are avoiding. Gluten is simply a compound made of two proteins, gliadin and glutelin, bound together by starch (a carbohydrate). Grains themselves contain three parts: the bran (or hull), the germ and the endosperm. Whole grains contain all three parts, while processed or refined grains contain just the endosperm. Because gluten is found in the endosperm, it can be found in all grain products, regardless of processing. Gluten is pretty much your typical grain product’s reliable sidekick, but unlike processed white bread, odds are eating it will not make you look like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal (in which she wore a fat suit). Additionally, unless you count yourself among the less than 10 percent of people with gluten sensitivity, the consumption of gluten will not be too difficult for your digestive organs, or result in undesirable aches and pains or an allergic reaction.
Celiac disease, aka gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a disease in which the immune system attacks gluten as if it were a threatening invader, such as a pathogen or a parasite. The inflammation that results can damage the intestinal lining, leading to malabsorption of many nutrients – including many essential vitamins and minerals. Symptoms for a person with this carb-lovers nightmare can range from abdominal discomfort, to an itchy rash, to the manifestation of nutrient deficiencies. Over time, for someone with celiac disease, the ingestion of gluten can increase the risk of intestinal cancer. There is no doubt that celiac disease can be lethal if gluten is continually eaten and failing to address this condition can result in an tragic, early visit from the grim reaper. For most people with celiac disease, it was pretty easy to detect because the symptoms are so obvious- quite simply, you eat grains and you feel awful. However, this can be a hidden cause of health problems, especially in its milder forms that then go undetected.
Besides celiac disease, it is possible to have gluten sensitivity, which is more common than celiac disease, but much less worrisome. It is very different from celiac disease because there are no antibodies for gluten present or observed damage to the lining and architecture of the intestine. People with gluten sensitivity are not at risk for intestinal cancer and are less likely to have nutrient deficiencies as a result of gluten ingestion. What is intriguing is the numbers of people who are showing signs of gluten intolerance today.
Compared to ladies living a half-century ago, the women of today are up to four times more likely to develop celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten.1 I repeat, four times from just 50 years ago! This is shocking and I am disturbed that increasing numbers of women cannot enjoy a hearty, all natural fruit pie, or pita pocket unless going out of their way to find gluten-free bread or other grain product. More women than ever are dealing with grain product hell and no one really understands why it’s happening, although there are a few theories.
It’s been suggested that there are new-age exposures to gluten that may be more likely to trigger immune system responses. Genetic modifications to grain products have increased the gluten content of wheat and other grains in some cases. It’s also possible that genetic modifications are introducing new chemical compounds into our diets, and some reactions to gluten may be a result of the new company it keeps. Also all the processed foods eaten today, including white flour products, oils and fried foods damage human immune function. And thanks to modern food processing, we are now finding the presence of gluten in everything from candy and meats to potato chips and processed breakfast cereals. The addition of gluten to these low-fiber and low micronutrient-containing products might spark immune reactions in some people. All of this is speculation and further studies need to be done to figure out why more people are developing adverse reactions to gluten.
While this mystery remains, what is important to keep in mind is that while the number of people with gluten sensitivities may be rising, the number of people who don’t digest it well is still relatively small. Only 1 percent of the entire population has celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity still only effects 5-10 percent of the population.2,3 For all other people, avoiding gluten provides no health benefits. Avoiding gluten for 90 percent of the population is like avoiding peanuts when you don’t have a peanut allergy. It is totally needless. If you experience unpleasant symptoms or stomach upset after eating grain products, then it is well worth a trial of avoiding all gluten containing grains and products and also getting a blood test done to test for celiac disease.
1. van den Broeck HC, de Jong HC, Salentijn EM. Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease. Theor Appl Genet.2010 Nov;121(8):1527-39. Epub 2010 Jul 28.
2. Rewers M. Epidemiology of celiac disease: what are the prevalence, incidence, and progression of celiac disease? Gastroenterology. 2005;128(4 suppl 1):S47-S5
3. National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Statement on Celiac Disease, June 28-30, 2004. Gastroenterology. 2005;128(4 suppl 1):S1-S9.