Gluten-free: Dietary fad or a real health issue?
You know that feeling of wishing you could “unknow” something? You move through life blissfully ignorant and then suddenly – BAM! – a powerful new piece of information enters your awareness and life never looks the same again. It’s just a part of expanding as a human being, but sometimes these little (or big) nuggets come with the requirement of major life change and you wish you’d stayed ignorant just a little longer.
That’s how I feel about gluten.
A few weeks ago, a reader wrote in accusing me of hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon. “Isn’t this just another fad?” he wrote. “Unless you’ve got celiac disease, is it really something we need to care about?”
Such good questions. Here were my short answers to him via email:
Is gluten a misunderstood and abused dietary trend? Yes
Is gluten-sensitivity a real and serious issue even if one is not formally diagnosed with celiac disease? Yes
Is gluten good for anyone? Arguably no.
Has the food industry abused this trend? Most definitely, and it will get worse before it gets better.
If something is “gluten-free” does that mean it’s good for you? Not necessarily.
This is a big, important and complicated topic, and one I’ve been meaning to address for a while. I think it’s time. Let’s start with a little basic science so we’re all on the same page.
Gluten is the primary protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, bulgur, spelt, and kamut. It’s what gives bread its chewy rise, what allows pizza dough to stretch without breaking. It’s also used as a thickener and a stabilizing agent in a lot of processed foods and cosmetics. At the most basic level, gluten is a composite of gliadin and glutenin proteins, joined by a starch in the endosperm.
Sounds harmless and natural enough, right? Well, unfortunately there’s more to the story.
One of the most damaging aspects of gluten is the havoc it wreaks on the gut lining. You see, when we eat gluten, the gliadin portion of the protein triggers the release of a substance called zonulin in our small intestine. Zonulin increases the permeability of the gut lining, a phenomenon we call “leaky gut.”
The gut lining is in many ways the final barrier between the outside world and what becomes part of our body on a cellular level. (I know this is a little mind-bending but bear with me.) One of our digestive tract’s many important roles is to decide what goes into our body – what literally becomes us – and what is excreted. That gut lining facilitates the transport of food broken down into microscopic components into the bloodstream.
Now, when the gut lining is compromised – such as with the release of zonulin after eating gluten-containing foods – lots of stuff can get into the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there, such as insufficiently digested food particles, toxins, and pathogens. Once in the bloodstream, they wreak havoc on the rest of the body, exhausting the immune system in the process as it moves in to clean up the damage. This is what we call “leaky gut”.
Celiac disease – the most extreme and only medically-recognized form of gluten intolerance – is an autoimmune disease that occurs in the small intestine, caused by a reaction to the gliadin component of gluten. On exposure, the enzyme transglutaminase modifies the protein, triggering the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine and causing significant inflammation and damage to this all important and delicate gut lining. The result of untreated celiac disease is severe chronic malabsorption of nutrients, which often leads to numerous other health complaints. The only treatment is the strict, lifelong elimination of gluten from the diet.
Clearly, being gluten-free is no joke for someone with celiac disease. But what about the rest of us?
Well, you don’t have to have full-blown celiac disease to be negatively affected by the leaky-gut created by gluten. Anyone with any digestive issues, food sensitivities, airborne allergies, or a challenged immune system will be worsened every time gluten is ingested, simply due to the increased gut permeability it causes. In fact, here’s a list of issues that have been attributed to gluten consumption:
- headaches, including migraines
- foggy head, cloudy thinking
- memory problems
- dark circles under the eyes
- food sensitivities
- digestive issues such as heartburn, stomach pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea, bloating after meals
- allergies of any kind
- moodiness and mood disorders: anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD, all the way to the autism spectrum
- skin issues such as eczema
- chronic fatigue
- joint pain
- chronic infections
And I wish I could say this was a complete list.
Now, I need to get naked with you guys and confess some things. I have known all of this for a very long time. And, like many of you, I love me some gluten-containing foods. Hunk of warm crusty chewy sourdough fresh out of the oven with a slab of butter melting over it? Perfection. Big ol’ plate of homemade pasta? Swoon. Croissant with that morning latté? That’s my definition of heaven.
So I know how hard it is to even fathom life without these treats. I get it. I really do. It doesn’t help that morphine-like compounds called exorphins (present in all grains) makes them quite addictive. It’s not just a little preference. This stuff gets IN and makes you want MORE.
When I first learned how bad gluten is I eliminated it, for the most part, immediately. I got used to eggs with veggies instead of toast for breakfast, I ordered salads instead of sandwiches, I even learned how to spiralize my zucchini and turn it into something that looks, feels and almost tastes like pasta. But I never went the whole way. I had my weekly cheats – that croissant at the farmer’s market, or big pasta dinner at date night. And every time, I paid the price. Headaches, gut aches, gas, crankiness.
I can honestly not recall a single client who did NOT feel better – usually significantly so – by eliminating gluten. To me, that’s all you need to know.
Now: does this mean that all gluten-free foods are good for you? Not at all. Just as all “organic” or “natural” or “sugar-free” foods aren’t necessarily good for you either. A gluten-free food is just that: it doesn’t contain gluten. Being gluten-free says nothing about the other ingredients. Unfortunately, in the case of many gluten-free products that seek to mimic their gluten-containing counterparts, you’ll find all manner of starches, fillers, and stabilizers that come with their own health issues. Our strategy is to simply eat a more paleo-style grain-free diet rather than try to fake it with processed gluten-free foods.
So, what to do with this information now that you know?
In the last couple of months, I have made a renewed commitment to myself and my family to be 100% gluten free. Already I notice an enormous difference in how I feel. My thinking is clearer, I haven’t had a single migraine, and any last digestive complaints have cleared up completely. My daughter who’s still nursing but who eats a gluten-free diet, had some digestive issues herself, which have cleared up since I changed my diet to match hers.
One of the great things about going gluten-free today is that there are so many resources for you. For one, our cookbook, The Naked Foods Cookbook, is 100% gluten-free and is 100% real food. There are also many creative bloggers out there who have come up with the most delicious and creative whole-food workarounds so that you’ll not miss that gluten at all. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:
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