Should You Eat Gluten Free?

Christina wrote us a note and asked “why someone would eat gluten free other than to relieve celiac sprue?”.  She asked if I might address this on our blog.   For me, this could be a trick question, with a tricky answer.  There seems to be some benefit to eating less flour and I’ve always been a fan of rotating grains (not just eating wheat and corn).  There’s no doubt in my mind that some individuals feel better with less carbohydrates in their diet while others gain energy keeping protein (particularly animal protein) to a minimum.  No one-size-fits-all healing diet exists.  Gluten-free eating is no exception.

That said, there are a growing number of people with Celiac Sprue Disease.  These folks must completely avoid gluten to be healthy and stay nourished.  There has been a huge increase of Celiac patients: –  1 out of every 5,000 people in the 1950’s to 1:133 today.  Predictions agree these numbers will continue to rise.  The cause for the rise is unclear.

But diagnosed Celiacs only account for a small fraction of the current demand for gluten-free products. (In total, the disease affects just 0.75 percent of the population.) Many believe, for one reason or another, that gluten is hurting them and avoiding it has become the new cure-all for whatever ails you. People go “G-free” as a means to get rid of headaches, clear up skin problems, overcome fatigue and lose weight.  Some just claim they “feel funny” or bloated after eating wheat products.  Since there’s no way to “prove” a case of gluten-intolerance in the lab, you need only discover (with or without medical supervision) that eliminating gluten makes you feel better to adopt the diet.

It’s cool not to eat wheat.  Avoiding gluten was cited as a top Trend in 2009. The steep bell curve of this chart reflects that.

Is the trend justified?  Meaning, have that many people become sensitized to gluten to the point that they need to avoid it altogether?  Being a teacher at a university that promotes natural medicine, I am trained to be curious about the underlying causes rather than accept the quick fix for the symptom.  Instead of self-diagnosing and avoiding all gluten products to get rid of whatever symptoms you might be feeling, what might be causing the intolerance to our daily bread?

POOR DIGESTION
Lots of people accept digestive woes, such as gas, bloating, belching and constipation as normal.  The body is telling you that you’re not eating what suits your system.  You can ignore it and take a Tums or change the way you eat. Notice I said “the way”.  That’s because behavior around eating is just as important as what is on the plate.

Another “in” is to take  probiotics  as a means of coping with poor digestion.  Once we learned how important a healthy bacterial population is to our digestive and immune systems and discovered all the ways in which we regularly deplete that population (antibiotics and other medications, using Splenda, chlorinated water), the sale of probiotic supplements or foods with added probiotics skyrocketed.

You need a good digestive “fire” to successfully metabolize any foods, but especially calorie dense foods like bread and pasta.  A breakfast of biscuits and gravy is perfect for hearty souls who intend to spend the day plowing. Not so great for driving to the office.

LACK OF EXERCISE
Vigorous physical activity aids metabolism of all foods.   Athletes can break down large portions of complex carbohydrates and convert the food into energy efficiently.  People who sit at desks may transform the morning bagels into weight gain and pre-lunch cravings or fatigue.

TOO MUCH FLOUR, NOT ENOUGH WHOLE GRAINS

As a nation, we consume too many  baked goods.  Our take-away meals are dependent upon refined carbohydrates (toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner) which can lead to weight gain and fatigue.  A lot of those floury products also include sugar.   Most of us are not living a physically active enough life to avoid the muffin-top from eating muffins.

Grains in their natural whole form have a low glycemic index, while processed carbohydrates, including those made with flour or puffed grains, have a high GI. The reason is that it takes longer for digestive enzymes to reach the starch inside whole grains which slows down the conversion of starch to sugar.  If your jaw has to work to chew the grain you’re much less likely to trigger an insulin response (which in some folks leads to weight gain, moodiness, cravings and patterns of high energy followed by fatigue).  Many whole grains that require chewing are gluten-free – kasha, wild rice, quinoa, brown rice.

Folks who choose to be gluten-free and continue to eat the same quantity of flour products – just gluten-free flour products – are not really improving their health.  Many gluten-free flour products (not all) use refined rice flour, various gums and other additives to mimic the texture of wheat.

I have a strong hunch that a lot of people would feel better if they cut down on baked goods – gluten or not.

Barring a genuine Celiac Disease diagnosis, if you suspect eating wheat or gluten causes headaches, indigestion, weight gain or whatever try these interim steps before you decide to go all out and label yourself as “gluten-free”:
•    Severely limit all flour products. Even whole grain flour products.  Pasta, breads and so forth – maybe one serving a day at most.  Switch to eating whole grains to meet your carbohydrate needs.  Choose the gluten-free ones if you like (quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn, wild rice, millet, teff, steel cut oats).
•    Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat each day – ½ the volume of every meal.
•    Improve your gut population by eating probiotics instead of taking them.  Include fermented and cultured foods daily (like sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, kefir).  Don’t take antibiotics unless necessary.  Avoid Splenda.
•    Move vigorously for 30 minutes each day.

Notes:
Much thanks to Daniel Engber whose article Throwing Out the Wheat: Are we being too tolerant of gluten-intolerance?” supplied some help here – including the chart.
Rats fed Splenda showed decrease in beneficial intestinal bacteria. Disruption in the number and state of balance of intestinal microflora may potentially interfere with many essential gut functions, including nutrient metabolism, normal immune system functioning, gastrointestinal mobility, inhibition of pathogens (Cummings & Macfarlane, 1997; Holzapfel et al., 1998; Hart et al,2002), vitamin synthesis (B group and K) (Albert et al., 1980; Hill, 1997; Shearer, 1995), and metabolism of drugs (Bauer, 1998; Peppercorn & Goldman, 1972; Williams et al., 1971).

15 thoughts on “Should You Eat Gluten Free?

  1. Excellent post, thank you! I have often been curious about the gluten free craze among otherwise seemingly healthy people. I knew yogurt contained probiotics, but not kimchi and sauerkraut. I love sauerkraut and it is low calorie!

  2. Thanks for the concise, informative post. My hubby has been doing the avoid-wheat-thing for years and so my family mostly follows that. The key to his strategy, however, is avoiding flours even in gluten-free form. I have recently begun to push back against his wheat-free ways because when I occasionally bake, I don’t like using the highly refined starches. It seems like some combination of sprouted or fermented grain ground into flour with some gluten is better than adding potato/corn/tapioca starch since we don’t have celiac disease. My daughter definitely had gluten sensitivity (eczema type rashes) from when we introduced it to her at 15 months up until about 30 months, but her more mature digestive system seems to do okay with occasional “treats”. We limit flour products to no more than 2-3 servings per week.

  3. Great article! I’ve wondered about the gluten-free craze and if it’s “right” for everyone. For some folks, of course. But like you say, there is no single solution for everyone. I try to live by “everything in moderation.” (Though I don’t always succeed!)

  4. As someone who teaches people how to navigate (cooking, shopping, eating out) without gluten and other food allergies without all of the processed stuff, I hear so many different reasons why they go gluten-free. I removed gluten and casein from my son’s diet when finding that he had sensory processing disorder. The difference in his behavior changed dramatically. His excema disappeared too. We went through 2 6-week sessions of “eating therapy” because he refused to eat anything but the same 5 things. It didn’t help. After going gluten free he started wanting a wide variety of things. I agree that there are so many starchy gummy GF foods. We usually use nut, bean and coconut flours for baking and in other recipes.
    On the opposite end, gluten totally agrees with me. I had my large intestine removed when I was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Years later, I am fine. The gluten in pasta and breads slows my system down in a good way. Maybe it is too “gluey” for sensitive systems. Maybe the same reason it agrees with me is the same reason so many have trouble with it. Just some thoughts.
    Thank you for such a great article. The fact that GF eating has become trendy makes it harder for people to remember that a whole foods diet is largely GF by nature.

  5. I appreciate this article. I have been trying to avoid wheat for a little while and while I have noticed a difference I really have cut back on grains all together… I think it goes back to eating whole foods and not too much of anything, like you said “rotate”. I’d love to hear your take on dairy? I recently cut dairy out becuase my nursing baby was spitting up like crazy. I have noticed a HUGE difference in my blood sugar and his spitting up. We actually have a cow though and were drinking raw milk. I have been wondering if it is the store bought dairy we were using (mostly cheddar) or all dairy.

  6. Thanks so much for this post. My husband has adopted a gluten-free, paleo diet and even though I don’t really care for the diet, it was the only way for him to actually see how much he relied on breads, chips and sugar as his only source of calories. (I’d been telling him for years.) I also see a lot of gluten-free people also shy away from fat sources too. I also feel that a lot of people have a lack of probiotics in their systems because I don’t see fermented foods mentioned in the diets of vegetarians, vegans, paleo and GAPS. I really appreciate your balanced perspective.

  7. Very interesting. I would love to hear your take on the paleo diet (which says, among other things, that whole grains are worse for you than white grains).

    1. Becky, the paleo diet claims to have a strong basis in science but up close and personal it does not. Any paleo-tribe that didn’t have a source of complex carbohydrates (and many did) were looking for one.

  8. Thanks so much Cynthia, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my question. having tried gluten free for a couple of months now and reintroducing wheat to see how I react, it is clear that flour (glycemic index) is more of the issue than wheat itself. I appreciate your level headed assessment of this trend, your balanced approach to nutrition in general is a breath of fresh air and common sense.

  9. I’ve been gluten free for a few years now and have never felt better! My ND ran some tests and I am allergic to gluten, dairy and eggs. No wonder I felt terrible! I’ve also seen friends with autoimmune diseases do SO much better on a gluten free diet. I stay away from processed gf treats like bread, partially because they’re SO expensive.

    All in all I think it’s somewhat foolish to cut something like gluten out of your diet without instruction from a doctor. Ive known a few people that cut out gluten only to go to their doctor because their diet isnt “working” and they dont feel good. They found out that they were allergic to yeast. Go figure.

    There are no “bad” foods, everyone’s needs are just different.

  10. My husband and I really appreciate this post. I have been confused about this issue, my body’s reaction to breads, and trying different approaches. This blog really brought it all together with solid recommendations. Great job!

  11. Hello! I love your show and your recipes. My friends and I are CI groupies (and “Steve” groupies!). Anyway, I think a GREAT GREAT GREAT way to spread the word on your website would be if you had pin-able photos on each recipe so that people could more easily put your recipes on pintrest. You’re probably already aware of this, but I just wanted to make SURE you were aware of the pintrest angle. I pin all my recipes on pintrest, but with your site , I don’t really get any cool photos–just the same header–which I don’t want to put on each recipe, plus other people won’t see them and be interested.

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