I keep hearing how bad gluten is and how “gluten free” seems to be the new trend. What’s the deal?
Gluten and gluten-free diets – indeed, grains in general and wheat specifically – have received a ton of attention recently in what we call the “health space.” And people are paying attention. Want proof? The volume of gluten-free products available to us has literally exploded – according to a report from Packaged Facts, the gluten-free food and beverage market became a $4.2-billion dollar industry in 2012. Gluten and wheat have come under attack for “causing” everything from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to autism, and the gluten controversy has produced some rather extreme and polarized positions.
Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) First, some definitions. Gluten is the Latin word for “glue.” It’s a protein component of certain grains (such as wheat, rye and barley) and is what gives dough its elasticity. But, as we’re finding out, gluten is far from an innocuous component of our most popular foods. For some people, it can trigger symptoms that are all over the map. And one thing those symptoms have in common is inflammation.
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“Silent inflammation as we know it today is the main factor in the development of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases,” writes cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, in Shari Lieberman’s The Gluten Connection (Rodale, 2006). And, one of the triggers for that type of inflammation is gluten. “Gluten is what I call a ‘silent germ,’” writes noted neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, in his New York Times best-selling book Grain Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). “It can inflict lasting damage without your [sic] knowing it.”
People who have celiac disease are familiar with the damage gluten can do. Celiac disease is a condition in which eating gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine, which eventually causes inflammation that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients. But what science is finding is that you don’t have to have celiac disease to react badly to gluten. You can also be what’s called “gluten sensitive,” even without a diagnosis of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is essentially an immune system response that ultimately results in inflammation. Neurobiologist Aristo Vojdani, PhD, a recognized expert on gluten sensitivity, suggests that the incidence of gluten sensitivity in Western populations may be as high as 30%.
Lieberman, PhD, CNS, has suggested that gluten sensitivity and gluten reactions can be misdiagnosed as a wide range of diseases. In The Gluten Connection, she points out that gluten sensitivity can masquerade as everything from skin diseases (eczema, psoriasis and acne) and neurological disorders (headaches and behavioral problems) to autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis) and digestive disorders (irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease).
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How do I know if I’m gluten sensitive?
There are two ways to tell. One is to get tested, but that can be inconvenient and expensive – I don’t recommend it as a first option. What’s better is to conduct a low-tech, inexpensive experiment and eliminate gluten for a couple of weeks. “If you feel better and suspect symptoms go away, you're probably gluten sensitive,” writes Lieberman.
Remember that while some people are sensitive to gluten without realizing it, many more are not sensitive to gluten. Even Vojdani’s alarmingly high estimate that 30% of the population may be sensitive leaves a large majority of those who aren’t. For those folks, whole grains can certainly be part of a healthy, clean eating lifestyle, and gluten does not necessarily have to be avoided at all. It does make a lot of sense, though, to mix and match your grains so you don’t get overdependent on the same ones. Try some products that are made with the less familiar but widely available “ancient grains” such as bulgur, amaranth, spelt, buckwheat or millet, and put those into heavy rotation!