It seems like every day I encounter more people who are on gluten-free diets, and see more gluten-free products on the grocery store shelves. The way people used to say, “I don’t eat red meat,” they now say, “I’m gluten-free, and I feel so much better. I was getting bloated and getting itchy rashes, and as soon as I went gluten-free it all resolved!” What is going on? Have so many people developed a new food sensitivity? Is it an allergy? Is gluten-free just healthier?
Let’s start with the basics: Gluten is a category of proteins that are found in wheat, barley, rye, bulgur, kamut, and triticale. Gluten can find its way into other processed grains and foods by way of cross-contamination from shared equipment and facilities.
Gluten-Sensitivity v. Celiac Disease
Some people suffer from celiac disease, which, in very basic terms is the most extreme form of gluten sensitivity. These are people who have developed antibodies to gluten proteins. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system actually attacks their intestines. (One new study has identified a virus that could be triggering an overreaction to gluten that causes celiac disease.) Celiac disease can be diagnosed with a blood test and an intestinal biopsy. If you think you may have celiac disease, be sure to get tested BEFORE you try cutting gluten out of your diet (more on this at the end of this post).
Some people have less severe forms of gluten-sensitivity. This most often manifests itself as an itchy rash or stomach problems (or both) that occur after eating foods containing gluten. The gluten-sensitive person might see their symptoms disappear after going gluten-free, but still may not test positive for antibodies or for intestinal damage that indicates celiac disease. Some of the many other symptoms of gluten‑sensitivity that are often alleviated by going gluten-free include joint pain, migraines, and chronic fatigue.
The book Wheat Belly, by William Davis, MD, offers a fascinating account of several studies that show how much celiac disease has evolved in the last 50 years. As Dr. Davis demonstrates in his book, both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in general are more prevalent than ever before, due to a combination of factors.
Maybe it’s the wheat, not the gluten.
It’s possible that we are more likely to have celiac disease and/or gluten sensitivity today because of changes in the makeup of wheat that result from modern farming practices.
When people go gluten-free, the first thing they do is cut out wheat. There are many little-known factors related to the way wheat is grown and processed that make processed wheat VERY toxic. Some of these other factors could be leading to reactions that are commonly blamed on gluten. For example, much of the conventional wheat currently grown in the U.S. is sprayed with a chemical called glyphosate prior to harvest, in a process called desiccation. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup and it kills the wheat plant so that it dries more uniformly and can be harvested more efficiently. Some believe that this practice may be contributing to a sharp increase in the number of people with gluten sensitivity. In 2015, the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen.
In addition, experimental hybridization of wheat plants to create higher-yield crops has created many new gluten proteins that our bodies are simply not accustomed to dealing with. Wheat Belly offers a detailed explanation of experimental hybridization of wheat and changes in the plant and proteins that could be affecting human health. The hybridization of wheat varieties has resulted in wheat that contains gluten proteins that were not found in either of the “parent” varieties of wheat. So we are now eating foods made with wheat flour that contains proteins that are new, and had not previously been consumed by humans at any time in history.
So, is a gluten-free diet just healthier?
The answer to that question is different for each one of us. Take a look at your own diet and eating habits. Try to pay attention to symptoms that may be occurring right after you eat foods containing gluten. Experiment with cutting wheat out of your diet, and see how you feel. Try to determine whether another gluten-containing grain other than wheat also triggers your symptoms.
No matter what, cutting out simple carbs and processed grains and flours will reduce the inflammation in your body and alleviate many of the symptoms that we associate with gluten-sensitivity. Even if you are NOT experiencing any of the symptoms commonly associated with celiac disease, try just cutting out “simple carbs.” Eating whole grains (like brown rice), breads made from sprouted whole grains (rather than processed flour) and cutting out processed sugar can have very positive effects on your health and energy levels too.
As I mentioned above, if you feel very sick and suspect you may have celiac disease, do NOT cut gluten out of your diet before being tested. For the testing to be accurate, your body has to be showing reactions to gluten in your system.
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Joanne Malino, a certified Integrative Nutrition Coach, co-founded Profeta Farms with her husband, Paul Profeta, and General Manager, John Place. Joanne helps people to optimize their health and energy by choosing the best, cleanest, most wholesome foods available. She is passionate about providing a wide variety of local, organic, great-tasting foods to the surrounding area, and educating people about the importance of knowing where their food comes from.