Is Gluten Free Healthier? Here are the Facts
Have you noticed it too? A trip to the grocery store and there are shelves devoted to it. Scroll through Facebook and your feed is full of it. Ask your waiter and they’ll direct you straight to it or even provide a special menu.
Yes. I’m talking about gluten-free food. It’s everywhere. And it seems everyone’s giving it a whirl.
Each day I hear from more and more individuals who have turned to a gluten-free diet to manage both short-term issues like recovery from workouts as well to address long-standing health issues. The interesting thing is most all of these people are seeing excellent results, from improved digestion and restored energy levels to a stronger immune system and reduced headaches and sinuses. Have you watched Tom Brady and Drew Brees play NFL football lately?
But, is gluten-free just another fad diet? Or, could cutting out gluten be the change you need? Is gluten free healthier than other diets?
Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a collective term for proteins (primarily glutenin and gliadin) found in several types of grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. It helps maintain the shape of food by acting like glue and can be found in many different types of foods, including ones that you would not expect such as soy sauce and even toothpaste.
Is Gluten Free Healthier?
This is where the discussion and heated debate starts.
Most would agree a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier when compared to a well-balanced diet containing gluten. The would further agree that in certain people with gluten intolerance, adhering to a strict gluten-free diet is vital as even the slightest amount can make them very ill.
Gluten intolerance can range in severity from a mild gas and bloating to full blown Celiac Disease.
However, there are a variety of other factors to consider such as the source of our wheat.
In the USA, the wheat is genetically modified and tainted with glyphosate, AKA the weed killer RoundUp.
This is where the issues is. Many, many, many people without a gluten sensitivity or intolerance will experience health benefits from removing gluten from their diet because many of the food items consumed with gluten are processed, genetically modified, and laced with chemicals like insecticides leading to difficulty with digestion and inflammation.
More about this hot topic later…
Celiac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune genetic disorder that requires the lifelong removal of gluten from an individual’s diet. When people with celiac disease consume gluten, their immune system mounts an attack on the small intestine. Over time, these attacks damage the microvilli, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and usually assist in the absorption of nutrients. Removing gluten from the diet enables the digestive tract to heal, reduces inflammation and resolves symptoms.
If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to serious health problems, including nutrient deficiencies, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, infertility, and intestinal cancers, as well as other autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and type I diabetes. The condition is estimated to affect around 1% of people in the United States.
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Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), on the other hand, is a relatively new medical condition affecting around 6% of the population. It is used to describe individuals who cannot tolerate gluten and experience symptoms similar to those with celiac disease, yet lack the specific immune response and intestinal damage seen in celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
While celiac disease and gluten sensitivity share similar symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea, people with gluten sensitivity tend to experience non-gastrointestinal symptoms, such as skin rashes, headaches, joint and muscle pain, chronic tiredness, and limb numbness.
The emergence of these symptoms varies from person to person. For example, some people report waking up feeling extremely tired the morning after eating gluten. While others experience bloating and diarrhea two to four days afterward. When symptoms appear shortly after consumption, within a few minutes to hours, a wheat allergy is typically the culprit.
Wheat Allergy is an entirely different kettle of fish. Unlike, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, it involves an allergic reaction. The body’s immune system overreacts to wheat and produces specific antibodies. Wheat allergies are more common among children and typically present with hives or skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, or a stuffy nose. In severe cases, a wheat allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction.
A gluten-free diet is essential for individuals with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but is gluten-free healthier for individuals with a wheat allergy? No, as these individuals are not allergic to gluten. They’re just allergic to wheat, which contains gluten proteins.
Increasing Prevalence of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity
The prevalence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in the United States has grown significantly over the last three decades and is currently estimated to affect 18 million Americans. At the same time, the number of people adhering to a gluten-free diet has risen at a rapid rate, with more than $15.5 billion spent on gluten-free foods in 2016, twice the amount five years earlier.
Genetics alone cannot account for the rapid rise in gluten-related disorders. A greater level of awareness could help explain increased rates, with celebrities touting its benefits and professional athletes raving about its ability to improve performance. However, as more and more people, even those without a diagnosed gluten sensitivity, continue to report improved health outcomes with the removal of gluten, experts are beginning to believe there’s more at play.
Why is Gluten Free Healthier?
One inescapable fact is that wheat, the world’s most commonly consumed gluten-based food, is not the same as it used to be, not a thousand, not one hundred, and not even 50 years ago.
Since the early days of agriculture, people have been developing more economically efficient ways to produce and process wheat on a mass scale. Over time this has led to several significant changes to the way wheat is harvested, tended, and milled — all of which that could help explain the recent growth of gluten sensitivity, as well as the improvement in health that people are experiencing with gluten removal.
Modern Wheat is Biochemically and Genetically Different
As with most plant species, there are different varieties of wheat. Like there are over 100 varieties of pine, for example. Back in the good old days, your grandparents ate ancient varieties, like Spelt, Kamut, and Einkorn. However, almost all wheat consumed today comes from a stocky high-yield plant known as dwarf wheat.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when the world’s population tripled, and world famine was posed as a major concern, a movement called the “Green Revolution” took place. Advances in molecular science, primarily the ability to accelerate gene mutations and transfer DNA between plants, enabled the development of these dwarf wheat varieties, which have substantially faster growth rates and the capacity to withstand harsh fertilizers.
By the end of the 20th century, dwarf wheat had proven itself as a more economically feasible option and was adopted by farmers across the country. Today dwarf wheat is synonymous with modern wheat. And experts have suggested calling non-celiac gluten sensitivity, “non-celiac wheat sensitivity” instead.
Today’s Wheat has Higher Levels of Gluten
The so-called Green Revolution has also been blamed for increasing the gluten-content of modern wheat. One study found significantly higher amounts of the problematic protein Glia-α9 in dwarf wheat when compared to ancient varieties grown centuries ago.
Several studies have examined this relationship further. One such study compared the impact of ancient wheat (einkorn) and modern wheat (durum) on the intestinal cells of celiac patients. Compared to modern wheat, the ancient wheat triggered no inflammatory response on the cultured cells.
Modern Wheat is Ridden with Roundup
In the 1970’s, a “Genetic Revolution” took place leading to the development of a chemical herbicide known as glyphosate. Sold commercially under the name Roundup by the biotech giant Monsanto, glyphosate prevents the overgrowth of weeds. And yes, it’s the same stuff the World Health Organization labeled as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015.
Today, glyphosate is the most widely used commercial weed killer worldwide with over 1.6 billion kilograms sprayed on American crops alone since 1974. Interestingly, the first documented case of gluten sensitivity was reported just six years after glyphosate was introduced in 1980. Similarly, its usage in the U.S has risen in line with the increasing incidence of Celiac disease.
The use of glyphosate increased 15-fold globally when Monsanto introduced the so-called “Roundup-Ready” crops in 1996. These crops are genetically engineered to enable farmers to use Roundup without harming their wheat. Furthermore, a growing reliance on Roundup has triggered the spread of tolerant and resistant weeds in both the United States and globally. To overcome these resistant weeds, farmers typically spray more Roundup, more often.
Equally concerning, is the fact that Roundup is also used as a pre-harvest desiccant, meaning it’s applied just 3 to 5 days before harvest. If you’re eating products made from wheat, you’re undoubtedly consuming traces of glyphosate.
Recent findings published in the Journal of American Medical Association found increasing levels of glyphosate in people living in Southern California. The study took daily urine samples from 1000 people aged over 50 between 1993 and 1996, and between 2014 and 2016. The number of positive tests for glyphosate rose by 500%, and the concentration levels spiked by 1208%.
Residues of the weed killer were also recently detected in the urine of 99.6% of Germans tested, reaching five times the legal limit for drinking water in three-quarters of subjects.
Exactly, what this means for human health is still under investigation. However, a recent report shows that GMO wheat and glyphosate can exacerbate gluten-related disorders by impairing digestion, damaging the intestinal wall, increasing intestinal permeability, and contributing to imbalanced gut bacteria.
Personally, we are not comfortable fueling body with any synthetic chemical, especially one designed to kill weeds!
Grain Processing and Preparation
The wheat grown today is undoubtedly different from yesteryears. But, another major concern is that once it’s harvested, it’s then over processed. That’s because, in the late 19th century, modern technology revolutionized the agricultural industry with the invention of the metal roller mill. Not only did this improve the efficiency of milling, above-and-beyond that of traditional stone methods, but it also provided fine control of various parts of the kernel.
The nutritious components of the kernel (the germ and bran) could now be separated from the endosperm, allowing for the production of refined white flour at a fraction of the cost. While these “advances” were hailed as an industrial triumph, they led to an obvious reduction in nutrient density and a fibreless product that, we are now learning causes increased inflammation within the digestive tract, not to mention spikes in our blood sugar.
However, it’s not just the way we’ve learned to process grains. It’s also the way we prepare them. Back in the day, special care was taken to soak, sprout, and ferment the wheat, before it was baked the traditional way, with slow rise yeast.
These centuries-old methods were employed by our past societies to remove potent anti-nutrients, such as phytic acids, tannins, and gluten. Anti-nutrients not only interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients but also have the potential to irritate the intestinal tract over time.
Traditional methods of preparing and baking are thought to preserve the nutritional value of food. For example, soaking increases essential amino acids, like lysine and tryptophan, while fermented bread with prolonged germination time has a much higher fiber content and lower gluten proteins.[16,17]
Today, sugar, salts, and fats are added to improve the flavor and texture of bread, preservatives are considered a necessity to prolong its shelf life, and bleaches are applied to make even whiter bread from refined white flour. Also, when it’s time to bake, quick-rise yeast is used for extra efficiency. Let’s just say, you’ll be hard pressed to find a loaf that’s been soaked, sprouted or fermented at your local grocer.
All of this so-called advancement has transformed our 10,000-year-old food staple into a nutritional disaster that could be to blame for the myriad of gluten-related symptoms.
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Excess Consumption of Wheat in America
Unfortunately, despite the clear links between poor health and the consumption of modern wheat, Americans continue to eat it like there’s no tomorrow. Think about a typical American diet: cereal, toast or a muffin for breakfast, a chicken sandwich and a granola bar for lunch, maybe followed by Asian stir-fry noodles for dinner, and a processed cookie or cake for dessert. Every meal is loaded with wheat and gluten, and we haven’t even included the snacks!
Although wheat can contribute to a healthy diet by providing essential B vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber, unsurprisingly, it appears the human body has not adapted to deal with large quantities of today’s toxic industrialized wheat.
Gluten is Linked to Several Diseases
There are many benefits of gluten free diet, even for those without a diagnosed gluten sensitivity. For instance, individuals with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) have experienced complete symptomatic resolution of pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation when gluten in removed from their diet. In one study, stool frequency and symptoms returned to normal ranges in 60% of IBS patients after six months on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten is also associated with several other autoimmune diseases. For instance, many people with celiac disease also suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition where the immune system attacks the joints causing pain, inflammation, and stiffness. Recent trials show a gluten-free diet can improve joint symptoms of among arthritis patients.
Furthermore, gluten has been blamed for certain neurological disorders including a condition known as gluten ataxia. People with gluten ataxia slowly lose the ability to control and coordinate their muscle movements as a result of gluten. The mechanisms of how gluten interacts with the nervous system are still under investigation, but it appears the proteins trigger abnormal antibody reactions.
Gluten Causes Adverse Health Effects in Everyone
New findings from Harvard University indicate that gluten has a negative impact on everybody’s health, regardless of whether a gluten sensitivity exists or not.
Researchers found that consuming gluten, primarily gliadin results in increased permeability of the gastrointestinal tract, a condition known as “leaky gut”. Gluten damages the intestinal lining, which interferes with our ability to absorb the essential nutrients we need for healthy functioning, and can allow harmful toxins and bacteria to pass into the bloodstream.
As a large percentage of our immune cells are located in the digestive system, a leaky gut can also wreak havoc on our immune system leaving us susceptible to colds, repeat infections, and autoimmune disorders.
Gluten Free Diets and Athletic Performance
Many of my clients are confused as to why they can tolerate a bowl of pasta while competing overseas but experience debilitating symptoms when they eat similar foods in the United States. One of the most prominent reasons for this common complaint is the fact glyphosate has been banned in several European countries, including Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, as well as Colombia, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, and several Middle Eastern countries.
But, more importantly, where glyphosate is permitted in Europe, farmers are using the chemical weed killer far more sparingly due to strict legal limits set by the European Union. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set far laxer allowable levels, leading to significantly higher rates of spraying on American soil and consequently increased levels of human exposure. The total volume of glyphosate sprayed in the United States over the last 40 years accounts for 72% of the global share.
The other key reason you may be able to tolerate wheat while traveling overseas may lie in the prevalence of more traditional preparation and baking methods mentioned earlier.
Benefits of Gluten Free Diet for Athletes
Adherence to the gluten-free diet has become increasingly popular among non-celiac athletes, with as many as 50% reporting variable adherence. World number one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, Super Bowl champion Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as well asthe Garmin-Transitions U.S. cycling team are among the many professional level athletes to realize its benefits.
One of the primary reasons athletes are adopting a gluten-free diet is to ease gastrointestinal upsets during competition. Both elite and recreational athletes rely heavily upon adequate carbohydrate intake to fuel their strenuous training loads, and the majority of their carbohydrate-based energy comes from grains containing gluten. Thus, it’s easy to see why athletes following a gluten-free diet could be concerned about inadequate nutrition.
However, with the incredible array of gluten-free products available on the market today, many athletes are realizing many additional benefits of gluten free diet. The removal of gluten in athletes with gluten sensitivity is often associated with reduced fatigue and improved joint pain. For many athletes, this translates to more effective training sessions and quicker recovery rates, ultimately leading to better overall performance.
When gluten is removed, nutrient absorption is restored allowing the body to function at optimal levels and deliver the nutrients needed for adequate muscle repair and recovery.
Going Gluten-Free For Your Health
Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to achieving gastrointestinal healing and preventing complications in individuals with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
If you suspect you might have gluten sensitivity, we recommend getting an accurate diagnosis from a healthcare professional to rule out celiac disease or wheat allergy, especially since it can be harder to receive a definitive diagnosis once a gluten-free diet has already been adopted. With that said, everyone could benefit from avoiding the harsh chemicals laced through industrialized modern wheat by choosing to shop organic and adopting a gluten-free diet!