If a person is diagnosed with celiac, an autoimmune disease, cutting gluten from the diet prevents damage to intestinal cells. However, clever marketing has resulted in many people embracing gluten-free products in the mistaken belief that it leads to higher energy, weight loss, and lower levels of inflammation. Research has proven this to be a myth. In absence of celiac disease, cutting out gluten from the diet can be harmful as it eliminates fiber and necessary micronutrients found in whole grains such as magnesium, zinc, and some B vitamins. Humans have been eating wheat for some 10,000 years that originated from domestication of wild grasses in the Near East at the dawn of agriculture without any demonstrated aversion.
Consumer data shows that around 22 percent of adults in the U.S. are trying to avoid gluten, creating an estimated $8.8 billion market that grew 63 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to a market research firm Mintel. As many as 20 million Americans think gluten-free diets are healthier and around 13 million are giving up gluten to lose weight. According to Alessio Fasano, M.D., director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and an authority on the subject, states that, ‘the vast majority of individuals on gluten-free diets have no business being gluten-free, because for them there is no medical necessity. It is simply fashion.’
In the book Grain Brain, the author, David Perlmutter, lists dozens of diseases and symptoms that he believes are all related to gluten sensitivity and can be prevented or cured by a gluten-free diet. His list includes 38 different diseases or symptoms, including autism, infertility, and schizophrenia (p. 67). He asserts that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat/cholesterol diet is ideal not just for those afflicted with celiac disease, but for the general population. The author suggests that people should ‘start swapping out your daily bread with butter and eggs’ (p. 12). He also maintains that glorification of a high-grain/low-fat diet underlies today’s epidemics of obesity, memory loss, and other common chronic illnesses.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire, has found that gluten-free foods generally do not offer healthier alternatives to regular food and are considerably more expensive. The research published in the February 2018 issue of the Journal of Human Nutrition and Diabetics, compared more than 1,700 food products and found that gluten-free foods contained more fat, salt and sugar than their gluten containing equivalents and also had lower fiber and protein content. Evidence suggests that consumers consider a gluten free diet to contribute towards a healthy lifestyle and this has led to an increase in sales of gluten-free foods worldwide. Despite this increased interest in the gluten-free diet, there have been limited studies in the nutritional composition of gluten-free foods.
Fueled by the gluten-free craze, many manufacturers have begun to produce gluten-free products—including pastas, crackers, and breads. The problem is that gluten has been replaced with corn, rice, and potato products, which are typically high-glycemic foods and contribute to inflammation of arterial walls by generating an insulin spike, which damages the fragile endothelial lining of blood vessels, leading to serious heart disease problems.
It is important to distinguish between gluten and wheat allergy. Wheat allergy is an immune response to any of the proteins present in wheat, including but not limited to gluten, and is most common in children. Most will outgrow it by the age of twelve.
Symptoms of wheat allergy include:
nausea and vomiting
irritation of your mouth and throat
hives and rash
Symptoms related to a wheat allergy will usually begin within minutes of consuming a wheat-based product. However, they can begin up to two hours after. Symptoms of wheat allergy can be mild to life-threatening. Severe difficulty breathing, known as anaphylaxis, can sometimes occur and is treated with an epinephrine auto-injector. Someone who is allergic to wheat may or may not be allergic to other grains such as barley or rye.
Celic disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system responds abnormally to gluten. Gluten is present in wheat, barley, and rye. For someone with celiac disease, eating gluten will cause the immune system to destroy villi, which are fingerlike parts of the small intestine responsible for absorbing nutrients. Without healthy villi, a person cannot absorb required nutrition. Celiac disease can have serious health consequences, including permanent intestinal damage.
Adults can experience symptoms such as:
depression and anxiety
canker sores inside the mouth
infertility or frequent miscarriages
missed menstrual periods
tingling in the hands and feet
Symptoms of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are similar and may include recurring abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea/constipation, tingling/numbness in hands and feet, chronic fatigue, joint pain, unexplained infertility and low bone density. Some of these are also the result of other conditions. Professional medical diagnosis should be carried out to determine any gluten sensitivity before eliminating gluten from the diet.
The first step to diagnose both conditions is a series of blood tests that demonstrate an antibody response to gluten. If the tests are positive, an endoscopy will show intestinal cell damage characteristic of celiac disease. There is currently no specific diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Treatment for celiac disease is adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. Treatment for a wheat allergy is to adhere to a strict wheat-free diet. If a person has non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the extent to which there is a need to eliminate gluten from the diet depends on the severity of symptoms and the person’s own tolerance level.
A gluten-free diet removes products based on wheat, barley and rye, and foods derived from them. This includes breads, pastas and baked goods made with gluten-containing flour, but may also include foods such as sauces, salad dressings, soups and other processed foods, since these can contain small amounts of ingredients derived from grains. Switching from eating foods made from refined flour to intake of fruits, vegetables and legumes, will result in a healthier diet and weight loss, provided the substitute foods do not contain salt and sugar additives.
Why has celiac disease become more common in recent decades? An important clue comes from the fact that other disorders of immune dysfunction have also been increasing. People have become more sensitive to pollens, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune attacks, which suggests that the high fat/sugar/salt Western diet—recognized as pro-inflammatory—is partly responsible.
For a normal individual, taking up the gluten-free diet will not result in better health, but it will certainly result in a reduced bank balance.