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Gluten-Free For The Masses: Is Gluten Bad For Everyone?

Gluten-free for the masses, is it necessary?

Gluten-free labels are popping up more and more on grocery store shelves, and many are wondering about the new craze in diet and nutrition. While some denounce gluten in all its forms, other are skeptical of eliminating gluten completely. So the question arises: Is gluten bad for everyone? And, possibly more importantly, is “gluten-free” just a fad, or does a gluten-free diet really carry health benefits for everyone?

The core commandment of the gluten-free diet is “Eat No Wheat.” And wheat, of course, is rampant in the average American’s diet. Gluten is found in obvious wheat sources, such as bread, pizza, pasta, cereal, cupcakes, pies, and basically anything else delicious. Lesser known foods in which gluten hides include soups, sauces, dressings, ice cream, and the ever-mysterious “artificial and natural flavorings.”

For those debating the to eat or not to eat question where gluten is concerned, going gluten free is a big step. For the approximately 1 in 100 Americans who have the autoimmune disease called Celiac, going gluten-free is indisputably a “wise medical directive.”

Now, however, experts largely agree that there are conditions related to gluten other than Celiac. Terms such as “gluten-intolerant,” and “gluten allergy” are tossed around, with many consumers wondering if gluten is now on the health-food “banned” list, or whether or not this protein only effects some people negatively. Gluten has become more and more of a mystery, unlike other researched “banned foods,” such as sugar or fat, which we know have some sort of adverse effect on every person when overindulged.

The problem with the gluten-free diagnosis is this: Experts still do not know how many people have gluten sensitivity, what its long-term effects are, or even how to reliably identify it.

Gluten-intolerance and Celiac have a wide range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, migraines, skin rashes, nausea, history of miscarriage, infertility, depression, diarrhea, constipation, weight gain or weight loss. Some people have one symptom. Some have ten.

“We have absolutely no clue at this point,” said Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, says of the number of people affected by gluten, and why they are affected. Studies have shown that Celiac is reportedly not related to vaccinations, and is believed by some to be triggered in those who have a genetic predisposition.

The New York Times tells the story of Kristen Golden Testa, who could be “one of the gluten-sensitive.” Although she does not have celiac, she adopted a gluten-free diet last year. She says she has lost weight and her allergies have gone away. “It’s just so marked,” said Testa, who is a health program director in California for the Children’s Partnership, a national nonprofit advocacy group.

She did not consult a doctor before making the change. “This is my speculation,” she said of her self-diagnosis. She also gave up sugar at the same time and made an effort to eat more vegetables and nuts.

Advocates of gluten-free diets warn that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a “wide, unseen epidemic undermining the health of millions of people.” Others see the rising popularity of gluten-free foods just another food fad. Celebrity endorsement don’t help the matter. Tweets from people like Miley Cyrus have urged fans to give up gluten. “The change in your skin, physical and mental health is amazing!” she posted on Twitter in April. Her post was re-tweeted nearly 2,000 times.

A few short years ago, Celiac experts were trying to convince doctors that gluten was making some people very, very sick. Now, experts are trying to keep up with the demand of the public; a public who wants to know if gluten is bad for everyone, or just for a few.

“It is not a healthier diet for those who don’t need it,” Dr. Guandalini said, warning against those who opt out of gluten just for fun. These people “are following a fad, essentially.” He added, “And that’s my biased opinion.”

The American Journal of Gastroenterology published a study in 2011 that measured the effects of gluten on a group of people diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. In the double-blind study, participants who did not have celiac and were on a gluten-free diet were given bread and muffins to eat for up to six weeks. Some of them were given gluten-free baked goods; the others got muffins and bread with gluten. Thirty-four patients completed the study. Those who ate gluten reported they felt significantly worse.

“It’s not just a placebo effect,” Dr. Marios Hadjivassiliou, a neurologist and celiac expert at the University of Sheffield in England, explained.

How widespread gluten sensitivity may be is another point of controversy.

Dr. Thomas O’Bryan, a chiropractor turned anti-gluten crusader, said that when he tested his patients, 30 percent of them had antibodies targeting gliadin fragments in their blood. “If a person has a choice between eating wheat or not eating wheat,” he said, “then for most people, avoiding wheat would be ideal.”

What do you think about the gluten-free craze?

[Image via Shutterstock]

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6 Responses to “Gluten-Free For The Masses: Is Gluten Bad For Everyone?”

  1. Anna Mann

    Wheat and barley (as well as other grains ) have been so unnaturally grown and stripped of nutrition, its hard to say if it benefits anyone anymore or if its just damaging everyone. I'm not allergic or intolerant of gluten ( however my middle child has celiac ) but I feel sooo much better when I do the gluten free life style.

    I think it goes hand in hand with becoming more aware of what your eating so you make general healthier eating choices as well which is a double bonus!

  2. Vanessa Powers

    I am hesitant to say that 'one diet works for everyone' and that everyone should be gluten and grain free. I have been gluten free after 6 months, after being diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity. It has changed my life completely. GONE are the feelings of brain fog, joint pain and inflammation, bad sleep and excess weight-not to mention having about 1 1/2x as much energy now as before! For myself I can honestly say that grains are a poison and influence me for the worse. I eat about 95% gluten/grain free and on the rare instances that I eat gluten/grains, I get terrible brain fog and a number of other symptoms. Severely limiting grains/gluten has also dramatically helped my boyfriend's IBS-his symptoms only become apparent after having something with grain/gluten. Something that I think hasn't been mentioned in tandem with giving up gluten/grains is the improvements people see when they get rid of PROCESSED foods from their diets. I doubt it is just one thing that needs to be removed for a magic 'cure all,' except for those of us suffering from gluten sensitivity, celiacs or an autoimmune disorder. BUT, people need to start cutting the crap from their diet, stop getting their foods from packages and bags, labeled with 50+ ingredients they can hardly understand. Cooking with fresh foods and natural ingredients and cutting out processed foods, sodas, juice, and limiting grains will help anyone's diet and health.

  3. Megan Greenlaw

    I think you touched on a good point, Vanessa, in the "real foods" comment. For those without a gluten intolerance, eating healthier is beneficial. No matter what health issues you face, perhaps starting out with a healthy, natural, well-balanced diet high in produce and low in processed garbage is the best first step.

    For me, the hardest thing is not knowing who to talk to about food issues. I saw a nutritionist who said that it was bad for me to cut out processed foods because I might not get enough sodium. I looked at her and said, "Ma'am, 2,000 mg is the recommended daily dose of sodium. 1/8 tsp. of table salt has 2,000 mg of sodium. I get plenty of sodium." It was a complete waste of time.

  4. Vanessa Powers

    Like doctors, nutritionists come in all breeds. I found an amazing nutritionist who identified my gluten sensitivity almost automatically, then had me test it out to see if the hypothesis held weight. I would ask anyone you know for a reputable nutritionist. I think I lucked out with mine! She is incredible and on the spot. Her first advice to me was to get rid of the gluten because she was positive I had a gluten sensitivity, and to cut out the processed food. What your saying about the nutritionist you consulted just sounds ridiculous.

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