If you were a visitor from another planet who wandered into a modern-day supermarket, you'd eventually wonder about this weird substance called gluten - and why everyone seems to be avoiding it. After all, the label "gluten-free" is everywhere. Annual sales of gluten-free products were estimated at $10 billion in 2014, and that number is expected to reach $15 billion by 2016.
What Is Gluten, Anyway?
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains (mainly wheat, but also rye, barley, and spelt) that allows dough to rise. It's the sticky stuff that holds things together, and it makes baking a breeze.
A good way to think of gluten-or any protein-is to picture a pearl necklace. When proteins are digested, "hydrochloric acid in the gut undoes the ‘clasp,'" says gluten expert Tom O'Bryan, DC. "Enzymes cleave off the ‘pearls,' or amino acids, the building blocks of protein." With gluten, however, this process doesn't work. "No human can digest gluten completely," O'Bryan explains. "We just don't have the enzymes. And when you can't break down protein completely, you break it into chunks-like pearl pieces-which are called peptides. And these peptides are inflammatory."
Intolerance vs. Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease
Some experts have suggested that gluten sensitivity and intolerance are often misdiagnosed as a wide range of diseases. Shari Lieberman, PhD, CNS, writes that gluten sensitivity can masquerade as everything from digestive disorders to skin disorders, neurological disorders, and even autoimmune diseases. Gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease in that it is not an immune-mediated response. When celiacs eat foods containing gluten, their immune systems go haywire, ultimately damaging the lining of their small intestines. With gluten intolerance, symptoms appear soon after eating wheat or other gluten-containing foods, and they include cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea. Meanwhile, gluten sensitivity is basically a less serious form of gluten intolerance with similar symptoms.
Gluten-Free & Weight Loss
You will not automatically lose weight if you remove gluten from your diet. Just because a food is "gluten-free" does not mean it's healthy. Many gluten-free foods are made with substances such as cornstarch or potato starch that can spike blood sugar even more than wheat flour. "This is especially hazardous for anybody looking to drop 20, 30, or more pounds, since gluten-free foods, though they do not trigger the immune or neurological response of wheat gluten, still trigger the glucose-insulin response that causes you to gain weight," writes cardiologist William Davis, MD, in his New York Times best seller, Wheat Belly. Davis has pointed to considerable research showing that wheat has addictive properties and can impact cravings, mood, and appetite.
Gluten may trigger inflammation in a lot of people-but not in everyone. For these folks, whole grains can be part of a healthy diet. When it comes to diet, you've got to look at the big picture. "It's important to note that the rise in gluten sensitivity is not only the outcome of hyperexposure to gluten in today's engineered foods," writes neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of Grain Brain. "It's also the result of too much sugar and too many pro-inflammatory foods."
How do you know if you're gluten-sensitive?
There is no available, recognized test for gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. Some people may offer saliva or blood testing, but these tests have not been validated and I don't recommend them. The simplest way to find out if you're gluten-sensitive is a cheap, low-tech method you can do at home called an elimination diet. Simply take gluten (or even better, wheat) out of your diet for two weeks and see if you notice any difference.