This morning I had breakfast with a good friend of mine at Lolita´s restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I told him that I was going to write this post about the non-gluten movement that has taken center stage on the world nutrition platform…so much so that, within the last decade, the non-gluten food industry has blossomed into a $6 billion dollar business. Today, more than 100 million Americans consume gluten-free products. It´s estimated that more than half of the people who buy foods labeled gluten-free do not have a clear understanding of what gluten actually is (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes in oats), and they consume it because they think it will help them lose weight, because they seem to feel better or because they mistakenly believe they are sensitive to gluten. It can also be found in oats that are grown close to those grains.
As a result, a score of books have been written during the last few years, extolling the incredible benefits from a non-gluten diet. A couple of them (The Grain Brain and Wheat Belly) have become NY Times Best Sellers even though some of the information and research, supporting the authors´ conclusions, is now considered highly questionable. After all, the cultivation and harvesting of wheat, which began thousands of years ago, has been sustaining great civilizations since then…including the ancient Egyptians. So, even with all the hullabaloo surrounding it, how sure can we be that non-gluten is all what it´s cracked up to be?
Getting back to my “breakfast” friend, he commented that his wife has been feeling much better since going gluten free. I responded with, “Is your wife completely sure that she´s feeling better because she dropped the gluten or could there be other factors responsible for the improvement”? In other words, maybe people who were previously on the Standard American Diet (SAD) are not feeling better because of the non-gluten foods, but because they´re actually eating healthier (i.e., more vegetables, fruits, non-gluten grains and less processed foods).
So, what are the pros and cons of going gluten-free?
• Substitution of processed and refined foods with more fruits, vegetables and non-gluten grains…making it healthier than the Standard Western Diet of meat, dairy, eggs and processed and refined foods.
• Avoidance of sugary foods, high fructose corn syrup, sodas and fruit juices.
• Being more selective with our choices of what we eat.
• Paying more attention to the ingredients in the foods we consume.
• Many people feel better on a gluten-free diet.
• Research and studies show that only 2% of the population suffers from gluten problems (celiac disease, wheat sensitivity or wheat allergy).
• Since the gluten-free movement is new, it´s impossible to know the long term effects of gluten restriction.
• The reason health professionals don’t want to see people on gluten-free diets, unless absolutely necessary, is that for the overwhelming majority of people that don’t have gluten issues, whole grains—including the gluten grains wheat, barley and rye—are health promoting, linked to the reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases.
• Proponents of gluten free diets often ban legumes (beans, lentils, chick peas and soy), which are a powerhouse of proteins, nutrients and fiber.
• There is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or allergy. Glutens feed our good bacteria, which may boost immune function and viral infections.
• Gluten withdrawal may undermine the ability to pick up celiac disease, the much more serious form of gluten intolerance. Without consuming gluten celiac disease may not be detected.
• Many so-called gluten-free diets inadvertently still include gluten. Sometimes there’s contamination of gluten-free products, so even foods labeled quote-unquote gluten-free may not be.
• There´s a lot of non-gluten junk food out there…to be avoided…if you want to be healthy.
There are 3 legitimate health reasons for eliminating gluten foods from the diet: Celiac Disease, Wheat Sensitivity or Wheat Allergy.
According to Dr. Michael Greger, author of the NY Times best seller “How Not to Die”, these problems effect only 2% of the U.S. population. “For the 98% that don´t have wheat issues, there is no evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet has any benefits”.
So what´s the best course of action to take if you suspect you might be sensitive to gluten?
Dr. Greger goes on the say: “First off, do not go on a gluten-free diet. If you suffer from chronic irritable bowel type symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal pain and irregular bowel habits, ask your doctor about getting a formal evaluation for celiac disease. If you have celiac, then go on a strict gluten-free diet. If you don´t have the disease, the current recommendation is that you first try a healthier diet that includes more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, all the while avoiding processed foods. The reason people may feel better on a gluten-free diet…and therefore conclude that they may have a problem with gluten…is because they´ve suddenly stopped eating so much fast food and other processed junk food”.