Something you’re eating may be killing you, and you probably don’t even know it! If you eat cheeseburgers or French fries all the time or drink six sodas a day, you likely know you are shortening your life. But eating a nice dark, crunchy slice of whole wheat bread, how could that be bad for you?
Well, bread contains gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and oats. It is hidden in pizza, pasta, bread, wraps, rolls, and most processed foods. Clearly, gluten is a staple of most people’s diet. What most people don’t know is that gluten can cause serious health complications for many.
Just 10 years ago, barely anyone knew what the word gluten meant, let alone gave any thought to avoiding it. But now gluten-free diet menus are all the rage, and high-profile stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, and Victoria Beckham have been linked to the gluten-free diet lifestyle, which is said to contribute to increased energy, thinner thighs, and reduced belly bloat.
What It Is, Exactly
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. Most of us unknowingly love it, because gluten gives our favorite foods that special touch: It makes pizza dough stretchy, gives bread its spongy texture, and is used to thicken sauces and soups. Gluten-free eating has a basis in science, and it does help a genuine health problem. To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten is truly evil: Their bodies regard even a tiny crumb of it as a malicious invader and mount an immune response, says Alessio Fasano, M.D., medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore. Problem is, this immune reaction ends up damaging the small intestine, which causes both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies. If untreated, these responses can then lead to intestinal cancers as well as complications such as infertility and osteoporosis.
Experts once thought celiac disease was a rare disorder, believed to affect one in every 10,000 people. But an Archives of Internal Medicine study in 2003 suggests that celiac disease is far more prevalent than anyone had suspected. With increased testing and awareness, more people realized why they felt sick after eating a piece of bread, and food companies discovered a new market.
Now another problem is emerging, and experts are referring to it as nonceliac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity can lead to similar celiac symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and bloating. But unlike celiac, sensitivity doesn’t damage the intestine. For years, health professionals didn’t believe nonceliac gluten sensitivity existed, but experts are beginning to acknowledge that it may affect a large number of people.
The Health Hype
Thanks to the increase in diagnosed celiac and gluten sensitivity cases, and the corresponding uptick in foods marketed to sufferers, “gluten-free diets have emerged from obscurity, and now the pendulum has swung completely in the other direction,” says Fasano. And with this popularity push, people have latched on to avoiding gluten as a cure-all for many conditions aside from celiac, including migraines, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. While some have found relief, that doesn’t mean a gluten free diet will work in all cases.
And then there’s the idea that a gluten-free existence is the ticket to speedy weight loss. But, says Mark DeMeo, M.D., director of gastroenterology and nutrition at the Adult Celiac Disease Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “there’s nothing magical about a gluten-free diet that’s going to help you lose weight.” What’s really at work: Gluten-free dining can seriously limit the number of foods you can eat. With fewer choices, you’re a lot less likely to overeat. But it can backfire too, because gluten-free doesn’t mean fat-free or calorie-free.
Without gluten to bind food together, food manufacturers often use more fat and sugar to make the product more palatable. Consider pretzels: A serving of regular pretzels has about 110 calories and just one gram of fat. Swap them for gluten-free pretzels and you could get 140 calories and six grams of fat.
Should You Go Gluten-Free?
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the answer is easy: Yes, you have to. But if you just want to give the diet a spin, know this: It’s a giant pain in the butt. Giving up gluten may sound as basic as cutting out bread or eating less pasta, but this isn’t just another version of the low-carb craze. Because gluten makes foods thick and tasty, it is added to everything from salad dressing to soy sauce to seasonings.
Besides the hassle, you can end up with serious nutritional deficiencies. Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy, especially when people yank vitamin-enriched and wholegrain foods from their diets and replace them with gluten free brownies. In fact, research suggests that those who forgo gluten may be more likely to miss out on important nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, and fiber.
This is where careful meal planning comes in, which may explain why some people feel so good when they go G-free: They’re eating real food instead of ultraprocessed packaged fare. If you skip the gluten-free goodies and focus on fruits, vegetables, lean protein, dairy, and gluten free grains like amaranth and quinoa, this can be a very healthy way of eating. But you can’t just wing it.
Signs of Gluten Sensitivity
More than 2.5 million people may have celiac disease, yet only an estimated 150,000 have been diagnosed. That’s because people can be asymptomatic for years, and the symptoms of celiac disease can also overlap with other medical problems, so it often confuses both patients and doctors alike. That said, if you think you might have a problem, don’t axe gluten from your diet before being screened by a specialist. If you go off gluten entirely before having a test done, your results may come back negative even if you have the disease.
Celiac disease has hundreds of recognized symptoms, according to the Celiac Sprue Association, a nonprofit for those with the disease. Here are some common problems:
– Chronic diarrhea or constipation
– Abdominal pain and bloating
– Unexplained weight loss
A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 “diseases” that can be caused by eating gluten. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It has also been linked to autism.
We used to think that gluten problems or celiac disease were confined to children who had diarrhea, weight loss, and failure to thrive. Now we know you can be old, fat, and constipated and still have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems including your brain, heart, joints, digestive tract, and more. It can be the single cause behind many different “diseases.” To correct these diseases, you need to treat the cause, which is often gluten sensitivity, not just the symptoms.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that ALL cases of depression or autoimmune disease or any of these other problems are caused by gluten in everyone, but it is important to look for it if you have any chronic illness.
By failing to identify gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, we create needless suffering and death for millions of people. Health problems caused by gluten sensitivity cannot be treated with better medication. They can only be resolved by eliminating 100 percent of the gluten from your diet.
The Dangers of Gluten
A recent large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer.
This study looked at almost 30,00 patients from 1969 to 2008 and examined deaths in three groups: Those with full-blown celiac disease, those with inflammation of their intestine but not full-blown celiac disease, and those with latent celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (elevated gluten antibodies but negative intestinal biopsy). The findings were dramatic. There was a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72 percent increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35 percent increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease.
This is ground-breaking research that proves you don’t have to have full-blown celiac disease with a positive intestinal biopsy (which is what conventional thinking tells us) to have serious health problems and complications, even death, from eating gluten. Yet an estimated 99 percent of people who have a problem with eating gluten don’t even know it. They ascribe their ill health or symptoms to something else, not gluten sensitivity, which is 100 percent curable.
While testing can help identify gluten sensivity, the only way you will know if this is really a problem for you is to eliminate all gluten for a short period of time (2 to 4 weeks) and see how you feel. Get rid of the following foods:
– Gluten (barley, rye, oats, spelt, kamut, wheat, triticale – see www.celiac.com for a complete list of foods that contain gluten, as well as often surprising and hidden sources of gluten.)
– Hidden sources (soup mixes, salad dressings, sauces, as well as lipstick, certain vitamins, medications, stamps and envelopes you have to lick, and even Play-Doh.)
For this test to work you MUST eliminate 100 percent of the gluten from your diet–no exceptions, no hidden gluten, and not a single crumb of bread. Then eat it again and see what happens. If you feel bad at all, you need to stay off gluten permanently. This will teach you better than any test about the impact gluten has on your body.
Sources: www.huffingtonpost.com, www.womenshealthmag.com, Mark Hyman, MD,