Should you eat gluten free?

One of our Cookus Interruptus viewers  wrote us a note and asked “why someone would eat gluten free other than to relieve celiac sprue?”  She asked if I might address this on our blog.   For me, this could be a trick question, with a tricky answer.  There seems to be some benefit to eating less flour and I’ve always been a fan of rotating grains (not just eating wheat and corn).  There’s no doubt in my mind that some individuals feel better with less carbohydrates in their diet while others gain energy keeping protein (particularly animal protein) to a minimum.  No one-size-fits-all healing diet exists.  Gluten-free eating is no exception.

That said, there are a growing number of people with Celiac Sprue Disease.  These folks must completely avoid gluten to be healthy and stay nourished.  There has been a huge increase of Celiac patients: -  1 out of every 5,000 people in the 1950’s to 1:133 today.  Predictions agree these numbers will continue to rise.  The cause for the rise is unclear.

But diagnosed Celiacs only account for a small fraction of the current demand for gluten-free products. (In total, the disease affects just 0.75 percent of the population.) Many believe, for one reason or another, that gluten is hurting them and avoiding it has become the new cure-all for whatever ails you. People go “G-free” as a means to get rid of headaches, clear up skin problems, overcome fatigue and lose weight.  Some just claim they “feel funny” or bloated after eating wheat products.  Since there’s no way to “prove” a case of gluten-intolerance in the lab, you need only discover (with or without medical supervision) that eliminating gluten makes you feel better to adopt the diet.

It’s cool not to eat wheat.  Avoiding gluten was cited as a top Trend in 2009. The steep bell curve of this chart reflects that.

Is the trend justified?  Meaning, have that many people become sensitized to gluten to the point that they need to avoid it altogether?  Being a teacher at a university that promotes natural medicine, I am trained to be curious about the underlying causes rather than accept the quick fix for the symptom.  Instead of self-diagnosing and avoiding all gluten products to get rid of whatever symptoms you might be feeling, what might be causing the intolerance to our daily bread?

POOR DIGESTION

Lots of people accept digestive woes, such as gas, bloating, belching and constipation as normal.  The body is telling you that you’re not eating what suits your system.  You can ignore it and take a Tums or change the way you eat. Notice I said “the way”.  That’s because behavior around eating is just as important as what is on the plate.

Another “in” is to take  probiotics  as a means of coping with poor digestion.  Once we learned how important a healthy bacterial population is to our digestive and immune systems and discovered all the ways in which we regularly deplete that population (antibiotics and other medications, using Splenda, chlorinated water), the sale of probiotic supplements or foods with added probiotics skyrocketed.

You need a good digestive “fire” to successfully metabolize any foods, but especially calorie dense foods like bread and pasta.  A breakfast of biscuits and gravy is perfect for hearty souls who intend to spend the day plowing. Not so great for driving to the office.

LACK OF EXERCISE

Vigorous physical activity aids metabolism of all foods.   Athletes can break down large portions of complex carbohydrates and convert the food into energy efficiently.  People who sit at desks may transform the morning bagels into weight gain and pre-lunch cravings or fatigue.

TOO MUCH FLOUR, NOT ENOUGH WHOLE GRAINS

As a nation, we consume too many  baked goods.  Our take-away meals are dependent upon refined carbohydrates (toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner) which can lead to weight gain and fatigue.  A lot of those floury products also include sugar.   Most of us are not living a physically active enough life to avoid the muffin-top from eating muffins.

Grains in their natural whole form have a low glycemic index, while processed carbohydrates, including those made with flour or puffed grains, have a high GI. The reason is that it takes longer for digestive enzymes to reach the starch inside whole grains which slows down the conversion of starch to sugar.  If your jaw has to work to chew the grain you’re much less likely to trigger an insulin response (which in some folks leads to weight gain, moodiness, cravings and patterns of high energy followed by fatigue).  Many whole grains that require chewing are gluten-free – kasha, wild rice, quinoa, brown rice.

Folks who choose to be gluten-free and continue to eat the same quantity of flour products – just gluten-free flour products – are not really improving their health.  Many gluten-free flour products (not all) use refined rice flour, various gums and other additives to mimic the texture of wheat.

I have a strong hunch that a lot of people would feel better if they cut down on baked goods – gluten or not.

Barring a genuine Celiac Disease diagnosis, if you suspect eating wheat or gluten causes headaches, indigestion, weight gain or whatever try these interim steps before you decide to go all out and label yourself as “gluten-free”:

•    Severely limit all flour products. Even whole grain flour products.  Pasta, breads and so forth – maybe one serving a day at most.  Switch to eating whole grains to meet your carbohydrate needs.  Choose the gluten-free ones if you like (quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn, wild rice, millet, teff, steel cut oats).

•    Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat each day – ½ the volume of every meal.

•    Improve your gut population by eating probiotics instead of taking them.  Include fermented and cultured foods daily (like sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, kefir).  Don’t take antibiotics unless necessary.  Avoid Splenda.

•    Move vigorously for 30 minutes each day.

Notes:

Much thanks to Daniel Engber whose article Throwing Out the Wheat: Are we being too tolerant of gluten-intolerance?” supplied some help here – including the chart.

Rats fed Splenda showed decrease in beneficial intestinal bacteria. Disruption in the number and state of balance of intestinal microflora may potentially interfere with many essential gut functions, including nutrient metabolism, normal immune system functioning, gastrointestinal mobility, inhibition of pathogens (Cummings & Macfarlane, 1997; Holzapfel et al., 1998; Hart et al,2002), vitamin synthesis (B group and K) (Albert et al., 1980; Hill, 1997; Shearer, 1995), and metabolism of drugs (Bauer, 1998; Peppercorn & Goldman, 1972; Williams et al., 1971).

Cookus Interruptus

About Cynthia Lair

Cynthia Lair’s web cooking show Cookus Interruptus brings humor to healthy family eating with over 160 recipe videos. Cynthia hails from Seattle, WA where she is assistant professor and culinary director at Bastyr University, School of Natural Medicine. She is the author of Feeding the Whole Family with foreword by Mothering’s beloved Peggy O’Mara.