The Question of the Millennium: Should I Eat Gluten?
So, you have an allergy to gluten, but you think it might be celiac. Well, it’s definitely a gluten intolerance, or perhaps a gluten sensitivity?
One thing is for certain: Self-diagnosing yourself is never a good idea.
By now, I’m sure you’re well versed on the gluten-free craze that stormed our nation over the past 10 years. Entire supermarket aisles are dedicated to gluten free breads, crackers and cereals. But why are we suddenly turning our backs on gluten? Is there something to the gluten-free lifestyle? As a nutritionist, I am always weary of fad foods and diets, and I admit, most of the fads out there have little nutritional merit. So you might be surprised that I am hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon. I promise, it’s for good reason.
Gluten. What the heck is it?
Gluten is a protein found in many of the popular grains including, wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is great at maintaining the structure of food and affects the elasticity of dough. That is why gluten is an additive in many of the processed foods that we consume. Foods with gluten are staples in the American diet (pasta, bread, cereal, beer, and baked goods). Gluten winds up in many foods that you wouldn’t expect: soy sauce, gum, coffee, sushi rice, and processed meats. Even grains that consist of different proteins other than gluten, like oats and quinoa, are often cross-contaminated because they grow side by side with wheat on farms. Going gluten free may be more complicated than you think but I’ll guide you through it!
What’s so bad about gluten?
A loaf of modern day wheat bread is not the same as it once was. Bread, a staple in most food cultures, used to be a source of ready available nutrients. Today, bread is reduced to a slab of empty calories, unrecognizable proteins and toxic pesticides. The issue with wheat, which contains gluten, is the way in which it is grown. The modern version of wheat is a product of genetic modification. The wheat plant is hybridized and crossbred to make it more resistant to harsh weather conditions and to increase yield per acre. Let me remind you that these newly hybridized gluten proteins have never been encountered by our digestive system nor are they tested for safety for human consumption.
As I dug up some research on the history of wheat in this country, I found that low protein breads (soft wheat) were selected as the preferred wheat for pastry making. Hence, the D genome introduced into hexaploid wheat has more potentially immune active epitopes than the A and B genomes. The introduction of the D genome to our wheat proteins have the potential to stimulate an autoimmune response or an allergy.
Genetically modified proteins reek havoc on our immune system, but it’s not the only reason why wheat products are bad for the body. Check these out:
Intestinal permeability and leaky gut: If you’ve been reading my blog, you’re probably tired of hearing about leaky gut syndrome, but it might explain why we are having an adverse reaction to gluten. When the digestive system is damaged, large gaps form between intestinal cells leading to enhanced intestinal permeability. Large, undigested particles, including proteins, are able to pass through the gut and enter the blood stream, triggering an immune reaction.
What is causing leaky gut? A 2012 study confirmed that the Bt-toxin, produced by genetically modified corn, punctures cells in the digestive tract. This is not a surprise considering that the toxin is produced to kill insects by punching holes in their gut. I cannot stress it enough, CHOOSE ORGANIC!
Imbalanced microbiome: This is the chicken or the egg situation: does an imbalance in gut bacteria cause gluten sensitivities or does inflammation from gluten sensitives cause an imbalance in gut bacteria? It may be both! People with gluten sensitivities almost always have an imbalance in their gut flora. An imbalanced gut flora promotes leaky gut, immune system dysfunction and inflammation. In this case, we need to avoid crops sprayed with glyphosate, which is a potent antibiotic, killing the beneficial gut bacteria and promoting growth of harmful bacteria.
What a gluten sensitivity looks like
Many of my gluten-free clients claim positive effects of the diet on mental clarity, autism, skin irritations, digestive issues and auto-immune inflammation. If you’re looking for a more personal story I’ll tell you about my mother who was diagnosed with celiac disease.
There were clues throughout my mother’s life that pointed to a celiac disease diagnosis, however, no doctor could piece them together. My mother was sick. She was dangerously anemic and wore what is called “raccoon eyes” caused by iron deficiency. My mother was always hungry yet she was losing weight. Digestive issues plagued her throughout the day: bloating, gas, and diarrhea. She was constantly managing dermatitis herrpetiformis, an itchy rash on her arms. This is what celiac disease looks like.
Celiac disease is tricky: it’s an autoimmune disease, not a gluten sensitivity or an allergy. Some celiac patients have symptoms and some do not. Only a biopsy and the adoption of a gluten-free elimination diet can determine if a patient has celiac.
But what about those non-celiacs who feel better on a gluten-free diet?
There is such thing as a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which describe individuals who cannot tolerate gluten and experience similar symptoms to those with celiac disease. When these individuals eat gluten they experience ADHD, depression, migraines, arthritis, chronic fatigue, digestive disorders and foggy mind. There are many reasons as to why people feel better on a gluten free diet but it’s likely that the gluten you’re eating is toxic and difficult to digest. More and more doctors are starting to recognize non-celiac gluten sensitivity as a condition.
If you are seeing improvements in your health while on a gluten-free diet you may want to consider trying the FODMAPS diet. FODMAPS stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know what these terms mean. FODMAPS are believed to be poorly digested and poorly absorbed. FODMAPS pull water into the digestive tract when they linger for too long via osmosis. Secondly, colonic bacteria ferment FODMAPS, causing gas and discomfort. My thought is, if you are experiencing gas when eating gluten, you need to work on improving bacteria diversity in your colon (take a good probiotic).
Below is a chart of foods high in FODMAPS. These are foods to avoid.
Gluten is hiding in your food
Once my mother was on a gluten free diet she saw an immediate improvement in her symptoms, however, after years of good behavior her biopsy still showed damage present in her intestines. She thought that she completely eliminated gluten from her diet but gluten was secretly hiding in many processed foods. Gluten is used as a binder and is therefore found in foods like gum, soy sauce, gravy, processed, meat, sushi vinegar, vegetarian alternatives, soups, and oats. Restaurant meals are another source of hidden gluten. My mother, who is incredibly sensitive to gluten (she reacts to gluten in trace parts per million), is lucky if she doesn’t get sick when we eat out. Chefs and cooks may not be aware that pans, chopping boards, utensils and cooking stoves must be cleaned properly when preparing a gluten free meal. If you are looking to repair your digestive tract, give the restaurant meals a break.
Don’t be fooled! Gluten-free diets can be unhealthy
A gluten-free diet can be beneficial for your health, however, those who do not understand the basics of a healthy meal may end up gaining weight, creating nutrition deficiencies and eating tons more preservatives and sugar! First of all, promise me you will not become one of those gluten-free dieters who stop eating carbohydrates altogether. This is not a good diet plan. Whole grains are an essential source of energy and are an excellent source of vitamins. There are great gluten-free grains out there, including rice, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. You can easily find gluten-free bread in your grocery store and it’s delicious!
Another reason why gluten-free diets can be unhealthy is because the gluten-free versions of tradition wheat-based foods contain surmountable preservatives and added sugar. The amount of ingredients in a gluten-free cookie is twice that of a regular cookie. Remember that the gluten protein provides structure to foods. To create a sufficient replacement for gluten, manufacturers mix 10 different types of flours and chemical binders to create a similar mouth feel and viscosity to gluten. You’ll find ingredients such as rice starch, tapioca, chickpea flour, and cornstarch in your gluten-free products. This means gluten-free processed foods are complete junk. If you are on a gluten-free diet and craving cookies, find a brand that has no more than 5 ingredients on the nutrition label.
Recommended gluten-free brands and products
So, should you go gluten-free?
In this post we’ve established that in terms of how its grown, gluten has its issues. If you are looking for a clean, healthy diet a gluten free diet is appropriate but make sure to include lots of gluten-free whole grains and stay away from gluten-free processed foods. Gluten may not necessarily be the culprit that is causing your health problems, but in the process of eliminating gluten from your diet, you will eliminate many of the toxic, chemical latent, processed ingredients that are difficult to digest. Incorporate more naturally gluten-free foods into your diet, such as yams, squash, quinoa, beans, seeds, and organic tofu.
Good luck and reach out to me with any questions about a gluten-free lifestyle!