What's the deal with gluten?
If you’ve been alive and breathing in the last few years, you’ve probably noticed that gluten has suddenly joined the ranks of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup. These days, you can’t go more than five feet in a grocery store without seeing GLUTEN FREE in big bold letters (it makes me laugh every time I see something like water labeled as gluten free). Gluten free has become a trend of it’s own, losing the reasoning and science amongst all of the marketing and headlines.
So is gluten the enemy it’s been made out to be? The answer is yes and no... but mostly yes.
First things first, what is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat - it helps with forming structure, allowing bread to have the cavernous and airy form it’s known and loved for. The fact that gluten is a protein is important because proteins are what our immune systems react to (as opposed to carbohydrates or fats).
You’ll find gluten in any wheat product (bread, crackers, pasta, cake, muffins, cereal, doughnuts, bagels, granola bars…) but it’s also in other grains like durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, rye, barley and triticale - the lesser known cousins of wheat.
Why has gluten gotten a bad rap?
Although wheat and other grains have been an integral part of the human diet for thousands for years, it is important to recognize that wheat grown traditionally in the past is quite different from how it is grown and utilized today.
Reminder: the body is intelligent and uses food as information about its environment - it is in its nature to recognize real food - it doesn’t recognize food that has been mechanically or chemically altered.
Here’s a quick look at why gluten is causing problems:
Pesticide use (glyphosate in particular). Glyphosate (the compound found in Roundup) is ubiquitous, especially when it comes to wheat. When you eat wheat, you aren’t just getting gluten - you’re also getting glyphosate. Gluten + glyphosate is bad news for the gut lining. It can act on the tight junctions that keep the integrity of the intestinal wall, leading to the deluge of people experiencing “leaky gut” (more formally known as increased intestinal permeability). Leaky gut is a major player in autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, and food sensitivities.
Today’s wheat is not that same as it was thousands of years ago. It's been bred for productivity, taste, and resilience (great for food production)... but now it’s very different from the wheat that our body naturally recognizes. When you combine leaky gut + foreign wheat, you get an autoimmune response from the body. The immune system reacts to gluten. It’s as if an old Roman city lost control of it’s border and now a foreign enemy is entering.
Gluten is inflammatory. Inflammation is a mechanism our body uses for good in the short term (when you have a cut, inflammation helps) but chronically, inflammation is like adding gas to a fire. Chronic inflammation makes everything else worse - fatigue, pain, illness, diseases...
The Standard American Diet includes wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, and more wheat. It’s not uncommon to have wheat for breakfast (toast, cereal, pancakes, waffles, bagels, muffins, doughnuts), wheat for lunch (bread, pasta, noodles), wheat for dinner (bread, pasta, noodles, dumplings, stuffing), and wheat for snacks (pretzels, crackers, granola bars). With the 24/7, 365 consumption of wheat, our digestive and immune systems are being ravaged.
How do you know if gluten is a issue for you?
There are two different gluten-oriented issues.
- Celiac Disease: a true autoimmune reaction to gluten. It can be diagnosed when damage to the villi of the small intestine occurs (the absorptive cells of the digestive tract). An estimated 1% of the population has Celiac Disease.
Smelly, fatty stools
Symptoms outside the digestive tract:
Bone and joint pain
Amenorrhea (loss of period)
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): the body reacts to gluten, but it is not autoimmune. The number one way to test for this is with an elimination diet. An estimated 1 in 30 people have NCGS.
Symptoms outside the gastrointestinal tract:
Bone and joint pain
What’s the bottom line?
The state of our gluten production and consumption is not great. In general, gluten should be avoided.
It’s also important to remember that every body has a different biochemistry and therefore will react differently. That is why individualized nutrition is so important. It matters how food makes YOU feel, not someone else.
I’d also like to add that just because something is GLUTEN FREE, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A lot of products made gluten free are loaded with processed and refined carbohydrates and sugar, hydrogenated fats, artificial flavors, dyes, and preservatives. REAL FOOD is always the best answer.
If any of the symptoms up above speak to you, it is worth your while to work with a nutritionist to identify if gluten, or any other food, is right for you or not. Click here to schedule a consultation with me.