“Going gluten-free” is a long-standing trend that continues to sweep the nation, as more and more Americans renounce the wheat protein citing a wealth of undocumented benefits. That’s right, undocumented benefits.
Gluten, a protein found in a variety of grains, including wheat, rye, and barley, is rumored to be the solution to excess pounds, brain fog, poor sleep, moodiness, fatigue, and even enhance athletic performance—among other things. However, many of these beneficial claims are not backed by hard evidence when applied to healthy populations. In fact, much of the research backing these claims use subjects that have celiac disease or have been assessed for gluten sensitivity. 1-4
The weight loss claims have two sides. In 2005, one study found that eliminating gluten actually led to weight gain due to increased consumption of products labeled as gluten-free. Another survey revealed that more than 50 percent of respondents perceive that a gluten-free label means that the food item is “generally healthy.” Gummy bears and potato chips are gluten-free, by the way.
Those who have successfully shed pounds on a gluten-free diet most likely gave up the primary food groups associated with gluten—starchy carbohydrates—and also did not increase consumption of packaged food simply because of the gluten-free label.
Brain fog, low energy, sleeplessness, and other symptoms that are associated with gluten are also associated with excess sugar intake and processed or refined foods in the diet. If your pursuit of a gluten-free diet includes a complete nutritional overhaul, it may not be the elimination of gluten making life seem so much rosier.
How Do You Know if You Should Eliminate Gluten?
Approximately 30 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition toward celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food, causing serious health problems if left untreated. However, only a small fraction of these people actually develop the disease—about 1 in every 133 Americans. Celiac disease can lead to dysfunction throughout the body, including effects on mental health. Celiac disease may be initially diagnosed with a blood test which looks for the presence of certain antibodies, followed by confirmation with an intestinal biopsy.
Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is much more difficult to detect. Today, researchers estimate that about 6 percent of the U.S. population has gluten sensitivity, but that estimate is often debated. Many experts remain skeptical of the diagnosis “gluten sensitivity,” largely because there are no validated biomarkers or diagnostic tests to prove its existence (despite what many cash-based medical practitioners may tell you).
Dr. Alessio Fasano, the world’s leading expert on gluten and its effects on the body, said in an interview with Food Navigator, “if you have symptoms which you believe are triggered by gluten and you have ruled out celiac disease and wheat allergy, then you can try a gluten-free diet and see if things improve.”
According to Dr. Fasano, who is the director of the Center for Celiac Research as well as the Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and a member of the Medical Advisory Board for the Celiac Disease Foundation, researchers are currently “working hard on biomarkers.” He says, “All we know is what gluten sensitivity is not. It’s not celiac disease and it’s not wheat allergy…. I think where we are with gluten sensitivity is where we were with celiac disease 20 years ago.”
Tackling the Gluten-Free Trend
If you still think that gluten-free is the right choice, pursue your gluten-free diet while carefully considering Dr. Fasano’s explanation:
Your body wages a war on gluten much like it would germs or bacteria—which assault the gut endlessly. Gluten is unique because it is the only protein that causes the body to react like attack itself, in some cases (i.e., celiacs and gluten-sensitive individuals), but not all. Most people never lose the battle against gluten. As Dr. Fasano said, “So if you argue on that basis that we should all go gluten free, it’s like saying that we should all get rid of germs or bacteria. That’s ridiculous. Our bodies deal with bacteria all the time. We’re awash with them.”
Instead of blaming gluten or any other specific nutrient or food group for your health struggles, look at the big picture, what exceptions to healthy living are you making each day or week?
- Are you eating nutritionally dense whole foods?
- Are your portions appropriate for your age, weight goals, and activity level?
- Are you skipping meals?
- Are you eating out too often?
- Are you consuming too many liquid calories?
- Are you incorporating the right physical activity for your goals?
It is the little things that you do day after day that keep many people from achieving their goals. Commit to a healthy eating pattern and don’t buy into the hype that one nutrient is the reason you can’t achieve your health goals. It is never just one thing.
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