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Everywhere I go, I see “gluten-free” labels. Is gluten really that bad?
If you were a visitor from another planet and somehow 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, and fully 11 percent of households are reporting purchases of gluten-free foods (up from 5 percent in 2010). Sales of gluten-free products were estimated at $10 billion in 2014, and the category is expected to reach $15 billion in annual sales in 2016.
What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten—the Latin word for “glue”—is a protein found in certain grains (wheat, mainly, 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—at least not completely. “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.”
O’Bryan likens the lining of the gut to a piece of cheesecloth. Gluten—or any food you’re sensitive to—causes little tears in that cheesecloth, which allow all kinds of particles to get through into the bloodstream that don’t belong there. Inflammation—and a whole host of other symptoms and conditions—follow.
People with celiac disease have long been intimately familiar with the damage gluten can do. When people with celiac eat foods containing gluten, their immune systems go haywire, ultimately damaging the lining of their small intestines. But you don’t have to have celiac disease to have a negative reaction to gluten. You can be gluten- sensitive, or, more seriously, gluten-intolerant (see definitions below). And gluten sensitivity—like almost all food sensitivities—causes a response that ultimately results in inflammation, a major promoter of virtually every degenerative disease.
What’s the difference between gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity?
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 (irritable bowel) to skin disorders (eczema, acne, psoriasis), neurological disorders (behavior problems, headaches, brain fog), and even autoimmune diseases (MS).
Gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease in that it is not an immune-mediated response. But the symptoms appear pretty quickly after eating wheat or other gluten-containing foods, and they include (but are not limited to) cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea. Meanwhile, gluten sensitivity affects about 18 million people in the U.S. alone, and is basically a less serious form of gluten intolerance; the symptoms are similar, but gluten sensitivity doesn’t cause physical damage to the intestinal lining. Neurobiologist Aristo Vojdani, PhD, MSc, MT, a recognized expert on gluten sensitivity, suggests that the incidence of gluten sensitivity in Western populations may be as high as 30 percent.
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.
Will you automatically lose weight if you give up gluten?
No. Just because a food is “gluten-free” does not mean it’s healthy. Many gluten-free foods are made by replacing wheat flour with substances that can spike blood sugar even more, such as cornstarch or potato starch. “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.
So what’s the connection between gluten and weight loss?
Wheat. Wheat frequently triggers a rise in blood sugar, which in turn triggers a rise in insulin, which ultimately leads to fat storage. Davis has pointed to considerable research showing that wheat has addictive properties and can impact cravings, mood, and appetite. So many people who cut out wheat may indeed notice that weight loss is easier. It’s not so much the gluten that was causing folks to put on weight—it was the package it comes in (wheat). “If you eliminate foods that trigger exaggerated blood sugar and insulin responses, you eliminate the cycle of hunger and momentary satiety, you eliminate the dietary source of additive exorphins [a group of opioid peptides formed during digestion of the gluten protein], you are more satisfied with less,” writes Davis.
However, if you substitute other high-glycemic (i.e., blood-sugar-raising) foods for the wheat you cut out, you’re probably not going to see much fat loss.
Are There options for baking?
As an alternative to wheat flour, try baking with coconut flour, almond flour, or rice flour. In my house, we’ve had terrific luck with this.
So what’s the takeaway?
There’s good evidence that gluten may trigger inflammation—even low-level inflammation—in a lot of people. However, even though a higher percentage of people are gluten-sensitive than previously believed, many are not. Vojdani’s estimate that 30 percent of the population may be sensitive to gluten leaves a large majority who aren’t, and for these folks, whole grains can be part of a healthy diet. When it comes to diet, you’ve got to look at the whole 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. “It’s also the result of too much sugar and too many pro-inflammatory foods.”