There is no doubt that you have recently been noticing an increase of gluten free diets across the globe (especially in the U.S.). It seems that almost every food at our local grocery store has a gluten free label on it as well as restaurants having separate menus with meals which don’t contain gluten. Is all this worry justified though?
At the end of the day, gluten is only a combination of gliadins, prolamins, and glutelins (three different grain proteins) that give many wheat related products their elasticity and doughy texture when mixed with water. When the gluten is removed it prevents the bread from rising and tasting flavorful, pasta from forming a shape when made and pizza from having the crunch of the dough. In the past few years though gluten has appeared to replace carbs in the long line of ingredients that should be avoided in a healthy diet. First, it was fat, then it was sodium, then sugar, then carbohydrates in general, now it’s gluten. In this article, we will be going over when gluten free diets are actually necessary and when they are just a placebo effect/marketing hype.
When a Gluten Free Diet is Actually Needed
Since the so called “gluten intolerance” craze has flooded the media recently and a reported 30% of the American population has self-diagnosed themselves as afflicted with this condition, the real reason why gluten free diets were first used has been largely forgotten. Celiac disease (often interchangeably called sprue or coeliac), is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to mistake consumed gluten for a toxic substance. When someone with this disease eats any amount of gluten their small intestine lining will become damaged and can lead to severely loose stool (which can lead to dehydration), anemia, unhealthy weight loss, infertility, medication resistant depression, malabsorption of vital nutrients and stunted growth in children. For the 1% of the population that suffers from celiac disease, a strict no gluten diet must be followed for their entire lives.
While it is almost impossible to trace back to its origin, the idea of being sensitive to gluten without having celiac disease hasn’t been around for very long. More than likely though it did begin somewhere with a pilot study or research group correlating gluten with a wide variety of symptoms (or just a few) that disappeared when the protein was removed from a test subject’s diet. Next thing you know the study gets published, makes it onto the mainstream media and before you know it the headline of your national news reads: “Is gluten the reason why you can’t lose weight or think straight?”. This snowball effect continues as companies capitalize on the trend, labeling their products gluten free (even extremely unnecessary products that would never contain gluten such as meat, fruit, veggies, etc.).
This entire process has happened many times before with saturated fat, sodium, and artificial sweeteners to name a few. With all of these so called unhealthy additives starting with one correlative study that snowballed into every item at your nearest supermarket reading “low in saturated fat”, “low in sodium”, or “free of artificial sweeteners” among other possibly unhealthy ingredients. These companies don’t know if the claims are true, but they know they will sell more if they label their products with what the public wants them to see and what the popular media tells them is bad. It isn’t until years or sometimes decades later that new and better-executed studies surface completely, reversing our previous paradigms. Unfortunately for the general public, not everyone has the insight to question the media (especially if it’s almost everywhere) or go digging to see if these theories are actually true or backed by proper research. Put simply, it isn’t the consumer’s fault if the media, their grocery store and their doctor (including some very influential TV doctors) all say the same possibly incorrect facts spawning from one blown out of proportion study.
What Does it All Mean?
For those who (reasonably) have listened to what they were told from many sources and cut out gluten from their diet, and felt better overall, more than likely have experienced what is known as the placebo effect. Basically meaning that feeling better as a result of cutting out gluten is all in your mind, which can be a very powerful motivator. While this is definitely the case for many individuals, others might actually have a good reason for losing weight, feeling less bloated with less gas and overall more energetic on a gluten free diet. This reason is simply the foods they cut out that contained gluten also contained a high amount of simple carbohydrates and trans fats as well as a low amount of fiber and micronutrients. Think about it this way, cutting out a double cheeseburger (including gluten) and beer for a salad everyday at dinner as well as switching out a greasy pizza for a chicken breast with broccoli at lunch will definitely lead to weight loss, more energy and not as much bloating.
Of course, that probably won’t be enough to convince those who are already sold by the gluten free diet whether the health benefits are from a placebo, cutting out the unhealthy foods in their diet or celiac disease itself. A good test that anybody on a self-diagnosed gluten free diet should do is try introducing one serving of a healthy gluten food into their daily diet (this could be whole wheat bread, pasta, or even a beer). If the benefits received weren’t from a placebo then more than likely you will not feel any worse and I would recommend doing this as often as you can until you are comfortable with gluten again. While you might find that you, in fact, do not have a gluten intolerance, this isn’t a reason to go back to fatty, greasy fast food again as this is more than likely the main reason why the diet appeared to work in the first place. If this is, in fact, a placebo or possibly celiac disease and eating a single serving of gluten a day causes immediate fatigue, bloating, loose stool or any negative side effects then I would recommend seeing your doctor to administer an actual test to find out which situation it is.
Take Home Message
Sorry to all the readers of this article that have been or currently are on a gluten free diet but sometimes firm and fair love is the best way to get the truth across. I also believe that if someone is depriving themselves of pizza, burritos, burgers or any other comfort food in moderation when they don’t have to is a terrible travesty that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. At the end of the day, only about 1 in 100 of every individual who believes they have adverse side effects to gluten actually need to cut it out to feel better.
The rest of the time it is only a placebo that the media and companies want you to believe so they can sell more products or get more clicks on their website which is just plain wrong. While the mass amount of products that now specify that they are gluten free is probably a huge benefit for those who have been professionally diagnosed with celiac disease, for everybody else more than likely it is just an expensive version of the original product that is just as safe and healthy. That takes us to the end of this article. Thank you if you have read the entire thing and I hope you learned something valuable, not only about gluten and why most of us shouldn’t be afraid of it that to also to be able to look out for the next big media trend and say “I want to see if this is actually true”.