If you read this site often you know I believe fad diets are for the birds, but what about the latest trend of eliminating gluten or glutinous grains (wheat, oats etc) from your diet (known as the Paleo diet)? Is it the best choice for lasting health or sustainable fat loss? It’s a very common question and one that has created mass confusion for many. I want to explore that topic here a bit providing research on all ends.
Why Would Someone Benefit By Going Gluten Free?
Gluten is the large protein molecule in doughs that creates that gooey elasticity when wet. It’s found in foods such as wheat, rye and oats to name a few. It is also used as a thickening agent in many recipes including soups and candies.
It has been stated that anywhere from 6-12% (and some think as high as 40%!) of the population has a gluten or gliadin sensitivity or intolerance which is a spectrum of disorders ranging from celiac disease to wheat allergies and autoimmune disorders. When someone with this intolerance or sensitivity eats food containing gluten they have a inflammatory type response to the proteins causing a host of reactions. Symptoms may include gas, bloating, lethargy, ADD or ADHD and other psychological disorders, dermatitis and joint pain, inflammation of the gut wall and more. Many have linked this intolerance to having a large genetic influence as well as being a form of pre-existing auto-immune disease.
For these people there is a clear connection between what they eat in the form of gluten and some of the symptoms described above. It’s also clear that they should avoid it at all costs!
What About The Rest Of Us?
It’s now popular and trendy to avoid gluten or call yourself gluten-free even if you don’t have issues with it (although this may actually be a good thing as you’ll see). It seems to be a catch all for anyone experiencing unwanted side effects from the food they eat. I hear it all the time “it must be the gluten, I think I should go gluten free.” (even if they didn’t realize there was no gluten in their foods)
Business and marketing has caught up launching everything under the sun as being gluten free, you know, all the junk that we shouldn’t touch anyway: cookies, crackers, sweet treats, chips or any other processed food that once had gluten.
Our psychology says no gluten = good for me so we purchase food free of it and consume more. We jump on this bandwagon but still wonder why we don’t see the health results we are seeking.
Unfortunately these foods are no better than their gluten counterparts. They are highly processed, provide very little nutrition and potentially create an environment not suitable for peak health (inflammation, fatigue etc).
I have a few theories around gluten and gluten intolerance that I’d like to share. I think we are looking too specifically at one area, gluten. Beyond that there are other anti-nutrients in grains such as lectins, phytates and more that could be posing health issues.
Why does gluten get the bad wrap?
The reason so many are now claiming to have issues with gluten is because of the quality of the grains they are eating. Do you hear of other heavily gluten-based cultures having such large issues with gluten intolerance? I don’t.
What we see is that our food system has taken us far, far away from how food has traditionally been prepared. Back when grains were always soaked, sprouted or fermented prior to consumption reducing the burden of anti nutrients present like phytic acid, rendering them more digestible by the body. These would include things like fresh sourdough breads made with wild active yeasts or porridge that sat overnight in whey, lemon juice or miso. We would also use grains that were allowed to get wet from sitting in the fields letting naturally soak prior to processing into flours.
Check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s take on gluten intolerance.
Without this soaking or fermentation process the burden caused by eating larger amounts of gluten, gliadin, lectins and phytic acid is gut inflammation. This chronic inflammation disrupts our precious gut micro flora throwing our whole bodily system off balance and creating a potential environment for various genetic tendencies to be expressed. The continuing inflammation also wreaks havoc on our immune system, which is heavily centered in the gut, creating a rebound effect of auto immune disorders as a byproduct of the ongoing initial inflammation.
Given our current knowledge I think that we should rarely consume gluten or grain that is not from a source that has been soaked/fermented for longer periods of time. For me that might be once per week (even from fermented sources). It’s really hard to predict how much even one exposure to gluten and other grain inhibitors could really effect our health but many studies have been done on those with celiac. These studies show that even a single ingestion can produce an immune response that persists for up to 6 months!
I also realize that grains are everywhere and given our current system challenging to eliminate 100%. I would never recommend that, so please don’t read into it too much. I live by 80/20 as I truly believe that 20% rule allows us to adapt to our current environment without becoming to sensitive to what’s around us. On occasion go ahead and enjoy the bun on that burger or have a nice bowl of oats, but just pay attention to how you feel and pay attention to the minimal effective amount (mEA) that you need.
So What’s The Take Home?
- Gluten in and of itself isn’t necessarily evil but the lack of preparation of grains these days can be detrimental to overall health.
- Over consumption of grains in any form is most likely not the path to greater health.
- If you have any condition triggered by gluten and have been diagnosed celiacs OR have an auto immune disease you’re best to avoid at all costs.
- If you have no known issue with gluten or grains but want to improve your health only consume grains or flours that have been soaked and/or fermented prior to consumption. This will ensure less chance for “rejection” by the body and improve digestibility and utilization.
- Choosing a diet composed of high quality fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits will provide all the nutrients and then some that many claim are only obtained through grains.
- Listen to your body. Even though many of these issues happen on at an unconscious level only you know what is best suited for you.
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