What’s All the Fuss About Gluten?
by Christine Andrew, CNC, CFDM
Ten years ago I never heard about gluten intolerance or celiac disease although it has been in existance for over 100 years. Five years ago after being diagnosed with gluten intolerance, it was difficult to find a gluten- free loaf of bread, let alone any other gluten-free product. Now there are rows and aisles filled with gluten-free products from which to choose.
• Why has there been such a skyrocket in gluten-free products in such a short span of time?
• Has the number of people with gluten intolerances and celiac disease increase that much, or are more people adopting the gluten-free way of life as a healthy choice?
• Is this truly a healthy choice?
First, let’s look at what gluten is. It is the insoluble protein called gliadin in wheat, barley, and rye. It is the “glue” that binds ingredients together and allows flour to rise. Gluten is in all breads, cakes, cookies, crackers, cereals, pie, noodles, and other flour containing food products. Essentially, it is what the standard American diet has flourished on over the past 50-70 years.
Celiac Disease on the other hand is an auto-immune digestive disorder triggered by gluten intake or genetics. It is a disease of malabsorption where the mucosal villi of the intestinal wall is so damaged nutrients, vitamins, and minerals cannot be absorbed. Each time gluten is eaten, the body’s immune system attacks the small intestine and results in inflammation. When the villi are damaged enough, the body doesn’t absorb the nutrients. Failure to thrive is one result.
It is reported that 1 in 100 are diagnosed with CD. Fifty years ago 1 in 700 were diagnosed. Dr. Mark Hyman reports that there has been a 400 percent increase in the incidences of celiac. How does this happen? How does someone acquire food intolerances? One reason is our lack of genetic adaptation to grasses and gluten in our diet. According to Mark Hyman, M.D., American strains of wheat have a much higher gluten content which is needed to make the light fluffy, “Wonderbread” and bagels. Celiac is doubling every ten years possibly because of changes in how wheat is grown and processed. Modern practices like hybridizing alter molecules in the body, which in turn change the body’s immune response. Genetically modified wheat crops have much higher gluten content which may overburden the digestive system.
Another possibility is the over indulgence in certain foods. Americans have been taught by the former USDA food pyramid to consume the bulk of their daily diet with grains. Add to that the introduction of fast food, Americans have been indulging in breads, cakes, pies, cookies, bagels, hamburger/hotdog buns, muffins, cereals—all thinking these are healthy. Gluten protein causes an immunological reaction in the small intestine, then over time with constant indulgence in these foods, leads to damaged villi from inflammation. This is what is known as “leaky gut.” A poor diet will eventually lead to an inability to cope.
A third way we acquire gluten intolerance and celiac is through trauma- whether physical or emotional. Accidents, surgery, emotional strain, etc., stresses the body and creates inflammatory processes that could very well lead the intestinal environment vulnerable.
Is going on a wheat-free/gluten-free diet the healthiest choice? Not necessarily. First, wheat-free is not necessarily gluten-free. Second, food labels currently do not always refer to gluten. Also, there are dangers with cross contamination. Oats do not contain gluten, but if oatmeal is processed in a facility that also processes wheat, then there is cross contamination. Next, many people when embarking on a gluten free diet start substituting the alternatives to what they were previously consuming, i.e., gluten- free breads, cakes, pies, cookies, crackers, muffins, etc. These foods are still refined carbohydrates and will lead to blood sugar spikes, inflammation, and will precipitate other food intolerances and further damage the small intestine. Refined carbohydrates are low in nutrients and fiber, high in starch, increases appetites, and can cause difficulties in concentration and weight management. All grains are proinflammatory. Gluten-free grains are not any healthier. Taken in moderation with conscientiousness of thought, a “gluten-free” diet is a healthy choice. However, a “gluten-free” diet can also mean, no grains at all.
To truly manage gluten intolerance and celiac, you must first eliminate all wheat and gluten products—which are hidden in many processed foods and non-food products. I advise people to refrain from even gluten-free grains as much as possible . The intestinal villi need time to recover, and substituting with another refined carbohydrate will prolong the recovery process and lead you vulnerable to another food intollerance. If you have to have a grain food, then there might be an underlying condition that needs to be addressed. Second in gluten/celiac management, is support with nutrient deficiencies. All cases of celiac and gluten intolerance have nutritional deficiencies caused by the compromised gut health. It is important as part of the healing process to find the correct nutrients that are deficient.
In addition, I recommend receiving education about the condition. Read books, or attend classes on Gluten-free eating. If you wish to have a consultation to evaluate your health or to find out if you are gluten intolerant or have celiac, then fill out the form in the contact section of this website.