Don’t believe the hype: the gluten-free diet is not only unnecessary for just about all of us, but can actually be unhealthy.
The gluten-free diet is one of the hottest trends right now, and it’s growing into a pretty impressive money-making machine.
In fact, thanks to a perfect storm of mainstream anti-carbohydrate and anti-wheat propaganda and adoration of the Paleo diet, gluten-free dieting seems to be on its way to becoming the next major blockbuster hit.
But when you can buy gluten-free cupcakes, cookies, and even beer, and when just about every mainstream health and fitness magazine is telling us to avoid gluten as if our lives depended on it (in fact that’s what we’re told, in many cases), skepticism is warranted.
And in this case, the skepticism turns into indignation when you look at the facts and realize that the gluten-free trend is, for the most part, just another marketing ploy to make people think they’re reaping health and fitness benefits that simply don’t exist.
Let’s get to it.
Table of Contents
Let’s ask some gluten-free folk!
Gluten (Latin for glue) is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat products and related species of grains like barley, rye, and spelt. It’s the substance that makes dough resilient and stretchy and it’s also often used as a thickening agent in other foods.
It sounds pretty harmless, right? Well, there’s more the story…
Gluten is actually comprised of two proteins–gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin molecules aren’t degraded by heat or digestion and when they’re absorbed by the small intestines, they can provoke an autoimmune response in some people.
When this happens, the symptoms felt when gluten is eaten are usually gastrointestinal–bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea, sometimes with smelly stools–but they can also include headache, muscle pain, fatigue, and others. This is because there are some pretty nasty things happening in the body:
- Damage to the villi of the small intestine, which are tiny, finger-like projections that line it and absorb nutrients
The autoimmune response flattens the villi and makes them unable to properly absorb nutrients from the food passing by. This damage can remain for many years after gluten is completely eliminated from the diet, resulting in lingering gut inflammation and long-term micronutrient deficiencies.
- Inflammation in the gut, which, over time, dramatically increases the risk of disease and even death
In those genetically predisposed to it, the autoimmune problem with gliadin starts as an intolerance but, if the person continues to eat gluten and trigger the autoimmune responses, it eventually turns into a disease known as celiac disease, which is verifiable by the presence of certain antibodies produced in response to gluten and villi damage.
It’s estimated that between .3 and 1.2% of people have celiac disease and many cases go undiagnosed, partially because symptoms can be vague (general fatigue, anxiety, and even other autoimmune disorders, for example) or absent altogether. This is unfortunate because celiac disease is particularly nasty–definitely not something you want to leave untreated, even if it’s currently “silent” (without symptoms).
Now, that’s celiac disease–a rare condition that you probably don’t have. That is, chances gluten doesn’t trigger an all-out war in your gut like it does in celiacs.
What about people that complain about celiac-like symptoms when they eat gluten, though?
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition wherein a person experiences celiac-like symptoms when they eat gluten without the antibodies or intestinal damage seen in celiac disease.
There are many “simple” explanations thrown around as to what might be causing the sensitivity, but the research is scant. It’s possible that, in some people with “different” intestinal physiologies (that’s about as specific as we can be at the moment), long-term consumption of gluten can create a gluten sensitivity, but we just don’t know yet.
According to recent research, for every person who has celiac disease, there are probably six or seven people who have a gluten sensitivity, which sounds like a lot, but is only somewhere between 3 and 7% of all people. So chances are you don’t have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, either…even if you think you do.
Further muddying the water is the “nocebo” effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect: a harmless substance causes harm when taken.
A well-designed study conducted by Monash University and published in 2013 found that in people with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten only caused negative symptoms when subjects knew they were eating it. When they thought it was something else, they experienced no symptoms.
Furthermore, subjects’ gastroistestinal issues were not improved by reducing the amount of gluten in their diets, but were improved by reducing the amount of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates (FODMAPs) like grains, beans, dairy, and even some fruits.
These findings are in line with other research that indicates that what many people think is a gluten sensitivity is actually a reaction to FODMAPs.
That is, it’s not the gluten that causes the issues for these people, but these specific types of carbohydrates that aren’t absorbed by the small intestine and pass into the large intestine, are fermented by bacteria, and create gas, bloating, and discomfort.
In more extreme cases, such as constipation, headache, fatigue, and lethargy, the symptoms often stem from irritable bowel syndrome, not a gluten sensitivity.
So, the bottom line is your body probably deals with gluten just fine, and if you think it doesn’t due to symptoms experienced after eating gluten-containing products, it’s probably not the gluten causing the issues.
That said, if certain gluten-containing foods like wheat and other grains don’t sit well with you–if they give you a stomach ache or diarrhea, make you bloated, gassy or fatigued, etc.–then it makes sense to avoid them, regardless of what’s exactly causing the reaction.
If you’re like me and eating gluten doesn’t cause any negative reactions in your body, there’s no reason to follow a gluten-free diet. That said, I still think it’s a good idea to generally keep gluten intake low. Why?
Well, research has demonstrated that, over time, diets high in gluten can cause mucosal changes and damage to intestinal cells in non-celiac people. These effects may be limited to people with certain genetic predispositions and thus not a general problem, but more research is needed to really know.
What we do know is that it may be related to a protein known as zonulin, which controls the opening and closing of the “gates” of the small intestine, allowing certain molecules to pass into the blood while prevent others.
Research has shown that gliadin causes zonulin levels to rise in both celiac and non-celiac people, which means more gliadin proteins get into the blood (as well as other macromolecules that shouldn’t be there). It’s possible that chronically elevated zonulin levels caused by high, regular gluten intake could cause these gates to become dysfunctional, which may be involved in the development of autoimmunity.
Again, this may only become a problem in people genetically predisposed to it, but we just don’t know yet.
So, considering all that, I’d rather play it safe by following a relatively low-gluten diet, which for me is a few gluten-containing meals per week.
I’m sure I could eat more gluten and be fine, but I don’t really have a reason to eat it daily. I’m just not that big of a fan of grains. If I were, though, I would mainly stick to gluten-free options like buckwheat, corn, oats, quinoa, and rice.
“Gluten-free” is quickly becoming synonymous with “healthy,” and this is simply marketing bullshit.
The reality is a gluten-free diet offers no special health benefits, and ironically, many gluten-free foods are less nutritious, tend to be higher in carbohydrates and fat and lower in protein, and lower in fiber than their gluten-containing counterparts.
This is part of the reason why research has found that people with celiac disease following a gluten-free diet often have micronutrient deficiencies–like a vegan or vegetarian diet, the gluten-free diet just comes with nutritional “blind spots” that must be knowingly compensated for.
Oh and another fun tidbit? Gluten-free foods are, on average, about 242% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Being unhealthy has never been so pricey!
The biggest pieces of gluten-free marketing bullshit are the claims about how it will help you lose weight, usually by “unclogging” your body (whatever the hell that means).
Gluten-free dieting does not exempt you from the laws of energy balance, which dictate weight loss and gain. (Click here to tweet this!)
You can get plenty fat on a gluten-free diet, and ironically, the lower fiber content can make it even easier to overeat (fiber induces satiety). In fact, one study found that after 2 years of gluten-free dieting, 81% of celiac disease patients had gained weight and 82% that were already overweight gained additional weight (which is important because these weren’t underweight people coming into a healthy weight). Another similarly designed study found that 27% of initially overweight celiac disease patients gained weight on a gluten-free diet.
The bottom line is you want to lose weight efficiently and effortlessly, you’re going to have to plan or count calories correctly. Simply eliminating gluten or carbohydrates or any other nutritional bogeyman won’t cut it.