Find out if you are intolerant or sensitive to gluten and eliminate it to improve body composition and health. I’m not going to start this article by saying that everyone should avoid gluten, although there is evidence that gluten is a difficult protein for all humans to digest and they might be better avoiding it.
Humans have never had adequate stomach enzymes necessary to break gluten down so that it can be properly digested, a problem that has been made much worse by the genetic engineering of wheat over the last 100 years. According to a new study analysis published in BMC Medicine
, the amount of gluten in the wheat of today has increased to 14 percent from 4 percent a century ago.
Not only is the wheat we eat much more difficult and dangerous for our bodies to have to process than the wheat our great grandparents ate, but rates of gluten sensitivity have increased dramatically over the last half century. For example, the BMC Medicine
report analyzed rates of gluten sensitivity and found that “during the past 50 years we have witnessed an ‘epidemic’ of celiac disease (the diagnosed inability to safely eat gluten without suffering intestinal damage) and the surging of new gluten-related disorders.”
Gluten Sensitivity Has Increased Dramatically Since the 1950s
Two fascinating studies that tested for gluten sensitivity in military men using blood samples that had been taken 50 years before found that rates of gluten intolerance have increased 4-fold over the last 50 years. The men from that study who lived with undiagnosed gluten sensitivity had nearly a 5 times greater risk of dying from all causes during the 50-year study period.
These researchers suggest that “silent” undiagnosed, or incorrectly treated celiac disease may have a significant negative impact on survival, meaning if there’s any chance you are intolerant to gluten, you’d do best to avoid it! The evidence also suggests that just because you aren’t born with a sensitivity to gluten doesn’t mean you won’t become gluten intolerant. Check these statistics out:
• Infants who are exposed to gluten from 0 to 3 months have a much greater risk of becoming gluten intolerant than those who are not.
• Infants who are breast-fed are much less likely to become gluten intolerant than those that are given formula, regardless of if they are exposed to gluten during that time.
• You can develop gluten intolerance at any age. For example, a review in the Annals of Medicine found that during a 15-year period from 1974-1989, celiac disease rates doubled in one U.S. cohort, and this jump was due to an increasing number of subjects that lost the immunological tolerance to gluten in their adulthood.
• Celiac disease occurs in 1 to 2 percent of the American population, whereas estimates of diagnosable gluten sensitivity are around 35 percent of the Caucasian population, although this number may be much higher.
• Gluten sensitivity appears to be much higher in people of white European descent, especially those from the UK.
Gluten-Free Diet Trends
Today, a gluten-free diet has been adopted by anywhere between 2 and 15 percent of the American population for many reasons, including diagnosed celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the belief that a gluten-free diet is healthier or can help with weight loss. Eating gluten free is an increasing food trend, and although some nutritionists and various market research groups dub gluten-free eating a passing fad, better health and body composition would be more easily achieved if everyone with an intolerance to gluten were to eliminate it.
This article will address the concerns raised about the long-term health of a gluten-free diet so you can decide for yourself if it might be a good choice for you. I also provide 15 tips to achieve optimal health and body composition from a gluten-free diet. A clarification about definitions:
• Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition affecting numerous systems in the body and it causes lasting damage to the intestinal tract. In the long-term, people with celiac disease will die if they don’t avoid gluten.
• Gluten sensitivity is also an autoimmune condition, but it doesn’t cause lasting, irreversible damage to the digestive tract. There is a wide range of symptoms and degrees of sensitivity.
• The word sensitivity can be substituted for intolerance.
• Controversy exists about rates of gluten sensitivity because it is possible to have better health on a gluten-free diet but not have a positive blood test for gluten sensitivity. This is because gluten sensitivity is on a spectrum and it is possible to have serious intestinal inflammation from eating gluten but to not produce antibodies that will show up on the standard test.
Some nutritionists and doctors consider eliminating gluten to be unhealthy for nonceliacs because they suggest it will lead to a lack of protein, fiber, and essential nutrients in the diet. This argument ignores and belittles the issues:
• As mentioned, evidence suggests that we can be sensitive to gluten and not have a positive test for gluten intolerance.
• From a nutritional standpoint, there is nothing that is gotten from foods containing gluten that can’t be gotten easily from gluten-free foods. There are much better sources of protein, fiber, vitamin B, iron, etc., than wheat and gluten-containing foods.
• To achieve and maintain optimal health and body composition, it is absolutely essential that people try to eliminate processed and fast-digesting high-carb foods in favor of high-quality protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other whole foods. By eating this way, as long as you pay some attention to eating a well-rounded, “colorful” diet, you will avoid nutrient deficiencies whether you choose to eliminate gluten or not.
Still, the argument has been made that people who don’t have a diagnosed gluten sensitivity are eliminating gluten because they have heard it can help them lose weight and feel better, which results in the development of nutrient deficiencies or in some cases weight gain if people end up relying on gluten-free analog products (those made to mimic the conventional gluten-containing breads, cookies, crackers, etc.). Gluten-free analog products often substitute unusually high-carb ingredients (potato, corn, tapioca starches) In place of wheat, and they are often very expensive.
Understandably, eliminating gluten in order to eat a diet high in gluten-free processed carbohydrate-filled foods can cause insulin resistance, weight gain, and poor health, so that’s not the way to go. Another criticism of gluten-free diets is that they require burdensome restrictions that make people sacrifice social eating so that they must eat alone in order to maintain their diet.
Anyone who has ever tried a restrictive diet, whether it be a Paleo diet, a vegetarian diet, a low-carb, or a sugar-free diet knows that eliminating foods can cause some social disruption, but it comes down to the question, are you going to stand up for your health and are you willing to put something in your mouth that will compromise your body composition, beliefs, and energy levels?
Whether you are or not is a personal choice. The point is that many people are gluten sensitive, making it reasonable to ask the question, would I feel better and be healthier if I eliminate gluten from my diet?
To make ANY diet work for you, it must be based on individual dietary needs, high-quality protein, elimination of processed foods, minimal fast-digesting carb intake unless you have some specific need for lots of carbs (such as being an elite endurance athlete), and an attention to getting dietary fiber and all necessary nutrients.
A few pitfalls do exist to eating a healthy gluten-free diet:
Gluten-free substitutes (bread, cookies, crackers, pizza crust, etc.) are often higher in calories and carb content than the conventional gluten-filled version. Relying on them may cause insulin resistance and fat gain.
Products that are labeled gluten free or that were previously gluten free may not actually be gluten free. Companies regularly reformulate products, and although a product can’t be labeled gluten free if it contains gluten, if a product or food is made in a plant or kitchen that also processes gluten, it may be contaminated by gluten.
There are no labeling regulations regarding the definition of “gluten free,” meaning that marketers can claim a product is gluten free even if it is made beside a gluten-containing product. Additionally, products that appear to be gluten free, including sauces, condiments, dried fruit, and spices may contain gluten, but a store-based marketer may not know this, and inadvertently label it gluten free.
There have been cases of chefs intentionally contaminating food that is supposed to be cooked without gluten (yes, really). Whether this is due to a psychological problem on the part of the chef or to the gluten-free backlash is unclear. The point is that you need to be cautious if you need to avoid gluten.
Fifteen Tips to Successfully Eliminate Gluten:
1) Eliminate all processed foods. Minimize eating gluten-free substitutes such as bread and crackers. If you are transitioning to a whole food-based diet at the same time you are eliminating gluten, it may be helpful to use gluten-free substitutes to help you make the transition. But, be cautious about eating a lot of high-carb substitutes because this may compromise body composition and insulin health.
2) Eat high-quality protein from whole foods sources such as wild and grass-fed meats, beans, nuts, and seeds. Consider adopting a Paleo-style diet to ensure you are getting all the nutrients for optimal energy and body composition.
3) Eat a wide variety of vegetables (especially leafy greens) and fruit (especially berries).
4) Focus on getting adequate fiber. Supplement with a variety of high-quality fiber blends if your fiber intake is low. Remember, if you are eating a high-protein diet, you very likely need to take extra fiber.
5) Take glutamine because it will boost the immune system and help seal up gaps in the intestinal wall that are caused by gluten.
6) Consider taking a probiotic supplement to provide the healthy, live bacteria found in yogurt that will support digestive health.
7) Also, consider taking a prebiotic supplement, which is not a live bacteria, but a fiber that, when consumed, causes vigorous growth of the beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut. You need the prebiotic present for the probiotic to grow. There are a variety of prebiotics, including oligosaccharides, oligofructose and inulin, which are found in onions, garlic, yams, leeks, asparagus, bananas, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion, and wheat and barley (the only two to contain gluten). Prebiotics maintain gut health, aid in the absorption of magnesium and calcium, improve glucose tolerance, and may fight the development of cancer tumors. People who eliminate gluten need to make an effort to get prebiotcs because studies show that in the 1990s, 70 to 80 percent of the prebiotics in the American diet came from wheat.
8) If you want to cook with flour, use coconut, pea, quinoa, or flaxseed flour (all gluten-free).
9) Avoid all wheat products: Wheat, rye, barley, kamut, chapatti flour, brewer’s yeast, farina, semolina, spelt, bulgur, couscous, malt, seitan, triticale, and graham flour.
10) Avoid oats because although they are technically gluten free, they are often processed in plants that also process wheat and are commonly contaminated by gluten.
11) Consider avoiding corn, especially genetically modified and processed corn, because there is data that corn is the second most common food sensitivity after gluten. Opt for organically grown corn if you choose to include it in your diet.
12) Be very careful of sauces, condiments, and spices because even though items may not appear to contain gluten in their ingredients, gluten is often used as a stabilizing agent. Gluten is used to create a smooth texture in condiments and sauces, such as soy sauce and ketchup.
13) Be careful of being exposed to gluten in strange places such is in medications, postage-stamp glue, chewing gum, and cosmetics, such as lipstick.
14) Always think ahead when planning meals and snacks. Obviously, you aren’t going to be able to rely on getting edible food without some effort if you are trying to avoid gluten.
15) If you choose to eliminate gluten, have confidence in your decision and stick to it if it makes you feel physically better. Don’t let others dictate what you are going to put in your mouth. To read more about gluten sensitivity and the health benefits of eliminating it, check out this two part series: