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Gluten-Free Eating or Fad Diet? The Truth About Gluten Sensitivity

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The Surprising Truth Behind the Headlines

Are you gluten-free? Do you seek out gluten-free products? In restaurants do you ask for the gluten-free menu at the bemusement or even exasperation of your friends?

Well you’re one of the 10% of people who on average (at least across the UK) identify as those requiring a diet that is gluten free. That’s against a statistic of 1% who have actually been diagnosed as gluten free.

So what’s with the massive disparity? Why have millions of people decided to adopt a gluten-free diet when they have not even been diagnosed as coeliac? 

It could all be related to a cultural shift in attitudes and perceptions, increasing knowledge about the health benefits of certain foods and the relentless headlines in the media about gluten-free diets, fad diets, coeliacs and everything else connected to eating wheat. 

You would easily be forgiven for experiencing exasperation and frustration at the whole debate. And the reason why this topic occupies such a vague and difficult-to-define area of our understanding? Well, gluten sensitivity is notoriously difficult to diagnose. 

Diagnosing Gluten Sensitivity

There is ongoing debate about what constitutes gluten sensitivity versus coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is a serious illness where the bodies’ immune system identifies gluten as a malicious invasive molecule and launches an autoimmune response, which in turn damages the gut and limits the body’s ability to absorb other foods. 

Gluten sensitivity, however, results in a much broader scope of debate. Individuals can experience a wide range of symptoms and it is, therefore, more difficult to identify and treat. 

It’s all because there is, currently, no single test that identifies directly the presence of coeliac or gluten sensitivity. Rather the blood tests available screen for the antibodies that your body produces in response to the presence of gluten. But this could be affected by a number of factors that could potentially skew the test or give misleading results or no results at all.

Your body might not be producing as many antibodies on the day of your test; or it could be producing lots of antibodies, but in response to another condition or factor of influence. 

Additional tests will involve undergoing an endoscopic biopsy, whereby a camera is basically inserted inside you to identify and establish the damage caused to the lining of your small intestine should you be coeliac. Again this test is not 100% accurate and depends on a multitude of factors to try and establish cause and effect.  

Civilisation (thanks be to wheat)

What is it with wheat? Why does it occupy such a vaulted position in our society? 

It has its roots quite literally deeply embedded within our culture and religion and, rather surprisingly…. Our own personal addictions. 

The cultivation of wheat 7,000 years ago allowed our societies to thrive, whilst our bones become weaker. Eating wheat enabled us to store grains for use over winter; this meant we could build cities allowing culture to flourish and starting a revolution that would allow us to trade with each other, developing trade routes, commerce and capitalism and resulting in the worldwide capitalist system that we have today.

Meanwhile, inside our bodies, the stored wheat that we were consuming had a much lower nutritional profile of the vegetables, nuts, fruits, berries and animal proteins that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were consuming. Research has shown that early farmers were sicker and shorter than their forager ancestors. And it could be because the acid-producing effects of wheat inside the human body meant that bones become weaker over lifetimes and generations. A diet based on a restricted number of crops meant that people simply weren’t getting the nutrition that they had previously obtained from a wide range of foraged foods. 

And as societies and religions developed we have learnt to break bread to celebrate the body of Christ, to break fasts (breakfast? Toast anyone?) and to herald the coming of the summer harvest. Bread, from society’s point of view, is held in high esteem.

It’s even been argued that wheat is addictive and the jury’s still out on this one as the evidence continues to mount over the possibility of wheat grains containing addictive substances. 

So when you reject gluten you are in a way rejecting the foundation of civilisation; the ‘daily bread’ that feeds millions around the world and enables the world to feed countless millions. After all, if we all stopped eating grain-based foods at once; the world would very quickly run out of food! But it’s also important to remember that enabling millions of people to survive is not the same as enabling people to thrive. The fact that farmers gradually outbred and outnumber their hunter-gatherer ancestors has more to do with the food security of stored crops than the nutritional benefit of the foods they were eating.

And this has been written into our popular culture. To question it can cause offence. People do not like to have their closely held assumptions about food questioned, which is why the gluten-free diet, more than any other (Ok, maybe not the vegans!) has inspired criticism, controversy and attack. What does science say?

The Nutritional Profile of Wheat

Ok then, what about the arguments that gluten-free diets put you at risk of vitamin deficiencies? Let’s take a look at this particular claim a little more closely. 

Wheat flour is fortified with calcium, iron and the B-vitamins folic acid, thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin but this means all of these vitamins are added to the flour. Most of us will have noticed that grain-based cereals are fortified with various vitamins and minerals.

So replacing your wheat-based flour products with gluten-free products does have the potential to reduce your vitamin intake… but this is about the issue of fortification and not gluten. Should we really be eating foods that are so nutritionally poor that we physically have to add vitamins to them by fortifying them? Surely it makes more sense to eat foods that are naturally nutritious and have a strong nutritional profile?

The problem here is clearly replacing a food (wheat) with food that looks like wheat, behaves like wheat, but isn’t fortified with vitamins like wheat (gluten-free products pretending to be wheat).

The solution, of course, is to replace wheat with food that is truly nutritious; nuts, fruits, leafy greens, liver, red meat, oysters, wild salmon, eggs and vegetables all have high levels of vitamins and minerals that will far exceed wheat-based products like, y’know, bread, pasta, pizza, cakes and biscuits…. It’s not really rocket science!

And yet the majority of us cling to our grain-based products as if our very lives depend on them. Despite the confusion about diagnosis, the social factors and weak nutritional profile, wheat it still one of the most popular items in our shopping trolleys and in our diets.

As we’ve discussed it might have its popularity rooted in historical and cultural evolution and it may not have the densest nutritional profile but is wheat actually bad for you?

Is Wheat Actually Bad For You?

Culture, politics and food history aside, will wheat actually harm? Well, it’s not great news. Because things, as ever, are not so simple. There are a number of knock-on effects from the consumption of wheat which mean that whilst wheat might not knock you down dead; it could have implications for your long term health. 

  1. Wheat causes the release of zonulin – This is an ongoing area of study as not much is yet known about Zonulin and the effects it has on the body but scientists are beginning to discover strong links between the ingestion of wheat and the contribution towards leaky gut syndrome. In fact, studies are beginning to show the ‘regulation of antigen trafficking by the zonulin-dependent paracellular pathway and its activation by intestinal mucosa-microbiota/gluten interactions.’ Essentially this means gluten activates the release of zonulin, which then causes leaky gut, which then allows all sorts of nasty things to pass through your gut wall and into your bloodstream, causing ill health and other associated conditions like celiac disease, arthritis, thyroid disorders, and others.
  2. Wheat gives you hunger cravings and makes you fat – Yes, wheat does indeed make you fat. When we ingest wheat it is quite simply broken down into sugar by the body, leading to an insulin spike. Regular consumption of wheat means a person’s body sugar levels are constantly raised, leading to equally high insulin levels.  As our bodies have been evolutionarily programmed to store fat (in times of feast) then this is what it does. Regular consumption of wheat tricks the body into storing fat, which means you get fat. Wheat is also jam-packed with lectins, which inhibit the hormone leptin. Leptin regulates hunger, so when you become resistant to it, thanks to the presence of wheat, you begin to gain weight.
  3. Wheat may be linked to heart disease – because of the negative effects of zonulin and lectins that accumulate in your body, the immune system goes into overdrive.  One of the natural defence mechanisms of the immune system is inflammation, which is a primary cause of heart disease and is also a precursor to cancer, diabetes, arthritis, MS, and other degenerative diseases. The only way to reduce the threat of this is to reduce the cause and to eliminate wheat from your diet.
  4. Wheat could be screwing with your brain – yep, believe it or not, wheat can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and has been linked to mental health disorders. In fact, researchers have linked wheat from everything to dementia, decreased libido, depression, chronic headaches, anxiety, epilepsy, and ADHD.
    In Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar; your brain’s silent killers, Author and Doctor David Perlmutter argues, in

“The biggest issue by far is that carbohydrates are absolutely at the cornerstone of all of our major degenerative conditions,” he says. “That includes things like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and even cancers. What we know is that even mild elevations in blood sugar are strongly related to developing Alzheimer’s disease. That was published August 8, 2013, in the New England Journal of Medicine. Even mild elevations in blood sugar compromise brain structure and lead to shrinkage of the brain. That’s what our most well-respected, peer-reviewed journals are telling us.”

He goes onto describe gluten as the cornerstone of brain degeneration inflammation, explaining that it causes the leakiness of the blood-brain barrier and the argument is persuasive. However the science is not quite there yet. Simply because large scale studies on the incremental, negative benefits of gluten just don’t exist yet.

Gluten will not poison you and if you decide to eliminate it from your diet; it’s important to ensure you replace it with a nutritious diet full of vitamins and minerals and not an even nutritionally poorer gluten-free wheat substitute.

However, just because something will not kill you does not mean it has the nutritional profile to feed your body for optimal health. Gluten is pervasive and when we start to examine it a little more closely we can begin to understand that there are other choices, foods that we have naturally evolved to eat, over a millenia, which our bodies are adapted to and which, in the long run, will enable us to be much more healthy.

Because the effects of gluten may be so nuanced and subtle; it’s almost impossible to really study, over time, just how debilitating gluten might be. We’re only now, just beginning to understand the massive cost of sugar to both our bodies and society overall.

But we do have a choice; and we make this choice every day. We can eat healthy foods; vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts and proteins that have enabled us to thrive for millions and millions of years. Or we can fall back on bread and gluten; a food, previously unknown to nature and invented by humans, and one that has been around for the blink of an eye… a few thousand years. A food that has a weak nutritional profile and one that has big questions, though yet proven, about the potential negative effects it could have on our bodies and mental health. 

Remember when they used to say smoking was good for you?

The choice is yours.  

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