It seems like gluten has become a bad word in the health food industry lately. According to Forbes, “Sales of gluten-free products are estimated to hit $15 billion by 2016.” That’s an insane number for such a relatively new concept.
I’m always skeptical about products or new diets that gain traction quickly and overrun the market with promises of better health.
I started to wonder if the general population is truly sensitive to gluten as this industry claims, or if some of this hype should be attributed to clever marketing tactics.
Gluten most severely affects those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten actually damages the small intestine. Celiac disease is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, so it’s understandable that gluten has become our next target of concern.
Plus, many of the symptoms of celiac disease are common with upset stomach and can be the result of eating a poor diet in general. This has been contributing to people accusing gluten of their ill health.
For example, some of the more well-known symptoms of celiac disease as reported from the CDF include:
- Abdominal bloating and pain
- Chronic diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stool
Before we go any further, I want to show you exactly what gluten is and explain how and why it affects so many people.
What is gluten?
On a molecular level, gluten is simply a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is like the “glue” that binds foods together so they can maintain their shape.
Before I knew anything about nutrition, I just assumed gluten was only found in things like bread or pasta. I had no idea of the true extent of gluten’s reach.
As you can see from this image on the right from the CDF, gluten is hiding in way more foods than many people know.
How does gluten wreak havoc?
Gluten does not affect everyone.
But if you have celiac disease, gluten will definitely hurt your body.
Contact with gluten for someone with celiac disease can be just as detrimental as E. coli is to stomachs. Therefore, if you’re gluten intolerant, you have to be extremely careful about where you go to eat and what you put in your mouth.
As soon as the gluten from that tiny crouton hits the bloodstream, the immune system goes on the defensive. Instead of fighting the gluten, the body goes after, and damages, the lining of the small intestine.
That one small crouton sets off a chain reaction.
According to Holly Strawbridge of Harvard Health, this reaction can “interfere with the absorption of nutrients from the food, cause a host of symptoms, and lead to other problems like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, and seizures.”
So yes, you can say that gluten will definitely wreak havoc on your system, but that’s not the case for everyone.
Or is it?
Gluten sensitivity or non-celiac sensitivity
As you can see, individuals dealing with celiac disease are much more reactive to gluten, but is there a possibility that you can be just as sensitive to gluten without actually having celiac disease?
The answer is yes.
Strawbridge says, “A related condition called gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can generate symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage.”
How does gluten affect the general population?
It has been suggested that gluten also causes inflammation in our bodies even if we don’t have celiac disease.
One study from the US National Library of Medicine examined whether removing gluten from a diet would reduce inflammation levels, adiposity, and inflammation.
Six mice were studied and separated into two groups. One group was given a diet containing 4.5% gluten, the other group ate a completely gluten-free diet. Their weight, adiposity, blood lipid profiles, and other factors were assessed.
The results: the gluten-free mice fared much better than their gluten eating buddies and showed a reduction in both weight and adiposity.
In addition to inflammation, the small intestine takes a hit from gluten as well.
2. Changes to the small intestine
Another study done in the early 80s examined the effects of high doses of gluten over a six week period. The results indicated that high levels of gluten did in fact cause changes in the mucus membrane of the small intestine.
This shows that gluten can actually eat away at the small intestine’s lining even in individuals who do not have celiac disease.
But this news doesn’t stop in the stomach.
3. Neurological reactions
Gluten also affects the brain.
Research from “The Gluten Syndrome: A Neurological Disease” uncovered that “gluten sensitivity without histological gut damage, has shown to provoke neurological dysfunction.”
“The Gluten Syndrome” says that “evidence points to the nervous system as the prime site of gluten damage.”
Emily Deans, M.D. of Psychology Today, backs up this research further.
As Deans points out, “A combination of chronic stress, genetic vulnerability, nutrient deficiencies, and food toxins (including gluten), are responsible for most of the chronic diseases in the western world, including mental illness.”
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are two illnesses that Deans believes could have a strong connection to gluten and wheat sensitivities.
Although the prevalence of gluten sensitivities in people who do not have celiac disease is still being studied, recent data has shown that up to 6% of the population can be affected by gluten.
How can you tell if you are sensitive to gluten?
So if you felt like something could be wrong, you’d simply remove anything with gluten from your diet for a period of several days to several weeks and see how you felt afterwards.
Unfortunately, this method isn’t 100% accurate. After all, some of the items you may cut out could contain other ingredients that are also causing you to react. By cutting out everything with gluten, there’s no way to pinpoint if it was in fact the gluten that triggered a response or if it was another additive alongside the gluten that did it.
That’s why I always recommend going in for bloodwork if you think you might be sensitive or intolerant to gluten.
According to Harvard Health, a simple blood test is used to “test for the presence of antibodies against a protein called tissue transglutaminase. A biopsy of the intestine confirms the diagnosis.”
So instead of guessing and spending a small fortune on gluten-free products, it’s best to see your doctor and get tested first.
Gluten-free for weight loss
With trim celebs like Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Gwyneth Paltrow creating gluten-free cookbooks, it can be easy to fall for the idea that simply living gluten-free will help you lose weight.
But I still had a feeling that gluten-free diets were for the minority, not the majority of our population.
And the research backed me up.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, “Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can’t process the protein.”
So, will cutting out gluten from your diet help you lose weight?
Of course, this is no guarantee.
The trick is that when you remove gluten from your diet, you need to replace it with more whole foods such as beans, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. You should not be stockpiling prepackaged gluten-free items.
In fact, Livestrong reiterates that prepackaged gluten-free foods may not be any better for you. The article adds that “packaged gluten-free foods can be highly processed, and calorie-dense due to added sugar and fat, which can contribute to weight gain.”
As you can see, this is the opposite of what you’re looking for if you want to lose weight.
Muscle for Life isn’t far behind, stating that a gluten-free diet won’t help you lose weight. Their research confirms that “you can get plenty of fat on a gluten-free diet, and ironically, the lower fiber content can make it even easier to overeat.”
So if you haven’t seen your doctor yet, I’d be careful about going completely gluten-free and changing your diet.
If your doctor gives you the green light for your gluten-free diet, don’t worry. The choices you have are not just limited to prepackaged foods.
It’s important that any diet you’re following or may be considering offers variety. That’s the best way to consume the greatest combination of nutrients as possible. Without variety, you could be depriving your body of the essential vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly.
With that said, going gluten-free doesn’t mean you’re stuck eating boxed foods for the rest of your life. In fact, the following foods are considered naturally gluten-free, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Unprocessed beans, seeds, and nuts
- Meats, fish, and poultry (no breading or marinades)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Many dairy products
With those healthy options, I can see why some people reported weight loss results. Anyone eating items from this list is already on their way to better health.
After doing some research, it’s clear to see that the gluten-free craze may be fueled by both marketing efforts and a true gluten intolerance gaining recognition in the media. Although we’ve seen firsthand through studies that living gluten-free does not guarantee weight loss, it’s still best to talk to your doctor if you believe going gluten-free is best for your body and health.
Gluten-free foods can be a little more expensive, plus they may be overly processed or high in fats and sugars, so it’s important not to assume that gluten-free labels automatically mean that the food in question is healthy.
Have you noticed any reactions when you eat things like gluten or wheat? What’s your favorite gluten-free food or recipe?