Is Gluten As Bad As They Say It Is?
Being “gluten free” has become a big deal in our culture. About 25 percent of Americans claim they try to avoid this pesky protein. Because of that, most restaurant menus offer gluten-free (GF) options. Grocery stores stock their shelves with gluten-free items. Gluten-free foods have become a billion-dollar industry. But just how bad is gluten and to what extent should you go to avoid it?
Gluten is a large protein molecule found in wheat, rye, and barley, as well as lesser-known grains like spelt, kamut, emmer, einkorn, and triticale. It’s the substance that gives bread dough its elasticity or stickiness. The word gluten literally means “glue.”
We also find gluten in a lot of food additives like thickeners and fillers used in everything from lunchmeat to soup to candy because it does a good job of holding things together.
The “recent” move for so many people to become gluten free has occurred because of increased cases of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, also referred to as gluten intolerance. Both conditions come with the recommendation to avoid any food that contains gluten, however both conditions differ in how gluten affects the body.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, causes the small intestine to become inflamed when gluten is digested. The immune system then generates an abnormal response to gluten and attacks its own intestinal tissue, destroying the villi (small finger-like projections that protrude from the intestinal wall and absorb nutrients). This impairs nutrient absorption and causes malnutrition. Symptoms of Celiac disease can include:
- Osteopenia (lower than normal bone density)
- Lactose intolerance (inability to digest milk)
- Delayed growth
- Weight loss
Other possible symptoms are:
- Muscle weakness
- Constant fatigue
To determine whether someone has Celiac disease, doctors will perform a series of tests and evaluations including an examination of the person’s history, blood tests, and an intestinal biopsy. Once these tests confirm that someone has Celiac disease, the person must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or Gluten Intolerance are terms often used interchangeably. With gluten intolerance, the body views gluten as an invader causing a direct response in the form of inflammation inside and outside of the digestive tract. Gluten intolerance is not an autoimmune disease, and the immune system does not attack the tissues of the small intestine like it does with Celiac disease. Also unlike the symptoms associated with Celiac disease, the inflammation goes away once someone with gluten intolerance removes gluten from the body. Symptoms of gluten intolerance include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Diarrhea due to the inflammation of the digestive tract
- Attention-deficit disorder
- Muscle weakness
- Joint pain
Determining whether someone has non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not as easy as diagnosing Celiac disease. The tests usually show no indication of any type of pathology, regardless of the symptoms. The simplest way to determine gluten sensitivity is to go on a trial gluten-free diet. If symptoms disappear, a doctor will diagnosis the patient with gluten sensitivity.
Approximately 12% of Americans can be diagnosed as gluten sensitive using a blood antibody test. About 1% of the U.S population has full-blown Celiac disease. The problem with detection and diagnosis is that most of the time, the damage is done and the symptoms are present for a long time before anyone suspects gluten could be the problem.
If you look at the lists above, you can see that one could connect just about any unexplained chronic illness to gluten. If undiagnosed for long periods of time, gluten sensitivity could contribute to diabetes or cancer.
Some people with Celiac disease may not have symptoms, but they have the disease for quite some time. Both Celiac disease and gluten intolerance can be aggravated by emotional stress, infection, surgery, pregnancy, and childbirth.
I believe that gluten sensitivity is the reason behind many unexplained modern illnesses. We should put it on the short list of suspects in unexplained health problems—particularly digestive, autoimmune, and neurological disorders.
So, if you think you are gluten sensitive, try this test on yourself. Stop eating wheat, rye, barley, or anything that contains gluten for 12 weeks. (You must read the labels.) See how you feel. If you need convincing after that, reintroduce gluten and see what happens.
Of course, our Simple 9© program asks you to stop eating wheat, barley, and rye. However, we do allow you to follow the 80/20 rule where you can have some non- Simple 9© foods occasionally. If you think you’re gluten intolerant, you may want to go completely gluten free.