The Dark Side of Gluten-Free Living: Most People Benefit from Gluten

by Judith Fertig

Sales of gluten-free products reached $973 million in 2014 and are projected to grow to $2.34 billion in 2019, according to Packaged Facts, a market research publisher. Many such products cost more than their gluten-based counterparts.

Gluten Sufferers

The latest study, published in the American Medical Association publication JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the number of Americans with celiac disease remained relatively stable from 2009 through 2014 at about 2.7 million. Meanwhile, marketers for gluten-free products report about 40 million consumers.

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder in which ingesting gluten causes issues such as intestinal damage, anemia and fatigue. Those afflicted improve when gluten is removed from their diets and their intestinal tracts heal, according to the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.

Those with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy also experience a range of symptoms including bloating, brain fog and joint pain when they ingest gluten. According to the Center, as many as 7 percent of Americans, or 18 million people, fall into this vague category, due to a far less understood immune response, distinct from what’s linked to celiac disease.

Gluten Beneficiaries

The many Americans unaffected by gluten may want to avoid gluten-free products, says Dr. Michael Greger, a Washington, D.C., physician specializing in clinical nutrition. The bestselling author of How Not to Die, Greger founded the educational nonprofit NutritionFacts.org and is a founding fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

“Just because some people have a peanut allergy doesn’t mean everyone should avoid peanuts,” says Greger. “Some evidence suggests that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in people without celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy.” He cites a small study published in the Gut Microbes which found that a one-month, gluten-free diet may hurt gut flora and immune function, potentially precipitating an overgrowth of harmful intestinal bacteria for those on gluten-free diets.

The gluten components that cause problems for the wheat-sensitive may act as prebiotics and feed-good bacteria for the rest of us, says Greger.

“Wheat bran contains the important wheat-based prebiotic arabino-xylan-oligosaccharide,” explains Case Adams, a Morro Bay, California, naturopath and author of The Gluten Cure: Scientifically Proven Natural Solutions to Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivities. “It feeds the probiotics that produce enzymes which help break down gluten and gliadin proteins.”

Researchers from Pennsylvania’s University of Reading conducted multiple studies showing that arabino-xylan-oligosaccharide derived from wheat bran increases beneficial bifidobacteria populations in the guts of humans.

It is disappointing that a number of highly publicized studies done on celiac patients have been inappropriately applied to the general population, notes Adams.

Gluten may also boost immune function. In a study published in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, researchers found that after less than a week on a diet with added gluten protein, subjects experienced significantly increased natural killer cell activity, which could improve their ability to fight cancer and viral infections. An earlier study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that high-gluten bread improved triglyceride levels better than regular gluten bread.

Plus, Greger says, avoiding gluten means missing out on all the fiber, B vitamins, trace minerals and other nutrients from whole grains like wheat, barley and rye. A whole-grain-rich diet has been repeatedly shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer in studies from such institutions as The University of Minnesota and Lund University, in Sweden.

“Most gluten-free processed foods are not made with nutrient-rich, health-protecting whole grains,” adds Katherine Tallmadge, a Washington, D.C., registered dietitian, nutrition coach and author of Diet Simple. Ingredients such as potato starch and cornstarch with little nutritional value typically help take the place of wheat flour. “The gluten-free label has little to do with nutritional value.” French fries and many candies, for example, are naturally gluten-free.

Impact of Self-Diagnosis

Self-diagnosing a gluten issue can delay a doctor’s accurate assessment, cautions Greger. “We diagnose celiac by looking for the inflammation caused by gluten in celiac sufferers. If they haven’t been eating a lot of gluten, we might miss diagnosing the disease. Thus, instead of being on a gluten-free diet, we want celiac suspects to be on a gluten-loaded diet, such as four to six slices of gluten-packed bread daily for at least a month before they come for a diagnostic exam.”

Studies are ongoing and information continues to evolve regarding the pluses and minuses of a gluten-free diet.

Judith Fertig writes food health articles and cookbooks from Overland Park, KS (JudithFertig.com).

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