When you visit your local grocery store, you’re probably confronted with endcaps and displays of the latest gluten-free products.
From cookies and cakes to pastas and frozen pizzas, stores are dedicating significant amounts of shelf space for these gluten-free dietary replacements.
But is all of this really necessary?
Is a gluten-free lifestyle something we should all be striving for?
Is gluten even a problem for most of us?
With questions like these, I had to learn more.
There definitely are people who need to go completely gluten-free. 1 in 100 people are affected worldwide by celiac disease – an autoimmune condition that causes a person’s immune system to attack itself when gluten is eaten.
Despite this specific dietary requirement, the real rise in popularity of gluten-free products happened when gluten-free was associated with weight loss.
However, we determined in this article that going gluten-free won’t guarantee weight loss results.
But could going gluten-free ensure better health?
It turns out that there’s more to the gluten story than we may have heard, and that’s exactly what we’ll be exploring in today’s article.
What is Gluten?
Gluten seems innocent at first glance.
Gluten also gives some of our favorite (unhealthy) foods that stretchy texture we love. It helps pizza dough stay soft and chewy and baked goods rise.
So far it doesn’t seem so bad, right?
Here’s where things get complicated.
Food manufacturers realized that by adding gluten to their doughy items (think cakes and breads), they could actually produce a much larger product without spending too much money.
So they did.
And they continue to do so at an alarming and unhealthy rate. Gluten is in way more foods than you may even realize.
What Makes Gluten so Bad for Us?
Here’s what’s happening: the gluten that’s used today is not as natural as when it was first introduced to our diets.
And just like harmful additives we talked about in a previous article, our digestive system has no clue how to properly break down this Frankenstein ingredient.
Not only are the chemicals used in the additives unrecognizable to our bodies, but they also cause them to go on the attack.
Normally when your immune system is hit with an invader (such as an allergen), its built-in response sends out antibodies to attack the foreign substance.
Allergies will cause your immune system to respond with sneezing, wheezing, itchy eyes, or a runny nose.
In the case of gluten, the same allergic reaction takes place in the body, but your body’s response is a little different: painful inflammation.
While this inflammation happens throughout the body, the most common area of painful inflammation is in our guts.
Does Gluten Affect Everyone?
Gluten doesn’t just affect those with celiac disease, which is what we originally thought to be the case.
Yes, individuals with celiac are much more affected, but that doesn’t give the rest of us a free pass to Glutenville.
After some research, I discovered that gluten can wreak havoc in several ways even for those who have never been diagnosed with an intolerance.
Gluten May Lead to a Higher Risk of Death
Some of the participants were diagnosed with celiac disease, others with inflammation of the intestine (but not full-blown celiac disease), and some had latent celiac disease (essentially a gluten sensitivity).
What they discovered was pretty amazing.
Individuals with celiac disease had a 39% increased risk of death. But the inflamed intestine group saw a 72% increased risk!
Now, you may be thinking that since those individuals are more affected by gluten, the results should not be surprising. But there’s more to it.
The participants who did not have celiac disease and only had a slight sensitivity to gluten saw a 35% increased risk of death.
These results prove that gluten raises the chances for serious health complications even in people without a gluten intolerance.
This problem is only getting worse thanks to the fact that adding gluten to foods is actually becoming more prevalent.
One study compared the blood levels of 9,331 participants to see how their levels of tTG antibodies (an antibody triggered by invaders like gluten and responsible for attacking our immune systems) compared over the course of 45 years.
Researchers determined that the tTG levels increased dramatically over the course of this trial period and was so major that they saw a 400% increase in full-blown celiac disease among participants.
What’s even more startling is the fact that undiagnosed cases of celiac disease were “associated with a nearly 4-fold increased risk of death.”
So getting a diagnosis is crucial. Many people still suffer from celiac disease without even knowing they have it.
According to Celiac Central, “It is estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions.”
Additionally, “6–10 years is the average time a person waits to be correctly diagnosed.”
That’s a long time for someone to suffer without a proper diagnosis. And what’s even worse is that you could be treating the wrong issue and making matters worse in the process.
Check out these 13 early signs of gluten intolerance and if you suspect something’s up, visit your doctor immediately. You can’t just assume you have a gluten sensitivity and purchase all gluten-free products from here on out. It’s a serious condition that affects you on many levels.
And if your current doctor is having difficulty finding the source of the problem, it may be time for a second opinion.
Diseases Caused by Eating Gluten
Unfortunately, an increased risk of death is not the only health issue associated with eating gluten.
According to a review published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 55 “diseases” could be triggered from simply eating gluten.
Some of the 55 diseases include:
- Neurological disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, nerve damage (neuropathy), dementia, and even migraines
- Canker sores
- Irritable bowel disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Autoimmune disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
No, this doesn’t mean that every case of depression or cancer is connected to eating gluten.
Rather, those individuals who already have a sensitivity to gluten may be more prone to developing chronic illnesses if their gluten sensitivity is not well managed.
Alzheimer’s, Dementia, & Headaches
Gluten is also wreaking havoc on our brains. It’s especially prevalent in the connection with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Dr. David Perlmutter, a board-certified neurologist and author of ‘Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar’, was determined to uncover why neurological disorders are becoming so widespread.
Through his research, he discovered that:
“Gluten-containing foods stimulate inflammatory reactions in a significant number of individuals, well beyond the 1.8% of the population that has celiac disease.”
This only confirms that you don’t have to be diagnosed with celiac to feel the full effects of eating gluten.
According to Dr. Perlmutter, the inflammation in non-celiac patients “leads to an increase in bowel permeability and even increased blood/brain barrier permeability.”
Let’s break this down a bit so it makes more sense.
When we eat certain foods such as gluten, our guts release a protein known as zonulin.
This protein forces tiny junctions in the intestinal lining to spread apart. These can also be disrupted further thanks to stress, aging, infections, and certain toxins.
Our diets are also a contributing factor to this reaction. Foods like sugar, alcohol, and dairy are also to blame here.
When these junctions continually open up instead of remaining closed, our guts begin “leaking” out things like undigested food particles, nasty toxins, and microbes.
This is what’s known as leaky gut syndrome.
Your body is essentially leaking toxins from your intestines and into your bloodstream where it’s transported throughout your body.
Once your body realizes these chemicals are floating around, it sends out a signal to attack in the form of inflammation.
This inflammation can happen in our guts, joints, and even in our brains as is the case with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dr. Vikki Petersen explained that, “Over 54% of the current worldwide Alzheimer patient load could be prevented by addressing lifestyle.”
Dr. Petersen continues on to say that gluten could also be causing chronic headaches in people who only have a 56% indication of gluten sensitivity.
What seemed like such a simple ingredient is actually causing our bodies a great deal of harm.
Connection to Autism
Gluten also negatively affects children with autism.
One study published in PLOS ONE compared children with autism, their non-autistic siblings, and a healthy control group of children in the same age range.
Researchers concluded that the children with autism had much higher levels of the IgG gliadin antibody (an antibody similar to tTG) than the other two groups.
Essentially, this antibody makes autistic children much more sensitive and intolerant to gluten, which leads to an increase in inflammation and gastrointestinal upsets even if they are not diagnosed with celiac disease.
In fact, the researchers concluded that the gluten sensitivities were actually not connected to any gastrointestinal issues related to celiac disease.
Some experts believe there’s a cause and effect relationship with autism and gluten, but there’s just not enough evidence to support what makes this so.
All we really know is that gluten has been shown to increase the symptoms of autism in children, but cutting it out of their diets showed an improvement.
What Should We be Eating Instead?
I know this information may sound alarming to some, and it may not be right for everyone, but most healthy adults should seriously cut back on gluten.
The best way to see how you’re personally affected is to try an elimination period. Take a few days to remove any and all gluten from your diet to see how you react.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to spend a small fortune buying everything gluten-free you can get your hands on.
And it’s certainly not a free pass to enjoy gluten-free desserts and pizzas. Instead, you’ll want to switch to wholesome alternatives and avoid the processed stuff altogether.
Remember, when gluten is removed, food manufacturers have to make up for the flavor and texture-enhancing ingredient somehow. Read the ingredient labels carefully and watch out for added sugars and unnecessary additives in these products.
Just because it’s gluten free, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Another thing to keep in mind is that going gluten-free shouldn’t mean eliminating carbs. We talked about how important carbs are for our bodies in this article and learned that it’s a really bad idea to cut carbs out completely.
You’ll want to choose healthier, gluten-free carbs instead.
Here is a list of healthy carbs to choose from:
- Craving pasta? Reach for quinoa pasta
- Rice (reach for brown, basmati, or wild varieties)
- Chia seeds
- Nut flours
- Frozen, sprouted breads (check the label to confirm its gluten-free since not all breads of this kind fall into this category)
Fruits and veggies (frozen or fresh) are also going to be naturally gluten-free so these shouldn’t be off limits either.
For a complete list of naturally gluten-free foods, check out this article from the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Now that we know the truth about gluten, it’s time to reconsider if it’s worth keeping in our diets. Since it is hiding in so many foods, it’s going to take some time for you to truly phase it out of your diet completely.
The key is to attempt this process in a slow and steady manner instead of shocking your system all at once.
You should also consult with your doctor before taking any drastic steps. He or she can order a series of blood tests to determine if you have elevated levels of the specific antibodies connected with gluten.
As for now, I would keep an eye on how much gluten you’re consuming in your diet. If you need some ideas, check out these 15 gluten-free recipes that taste amazing. Gluten may not be the enemy, but it’s certainly no friend.
Were you surprised to learn that gluten is more than another weight loss fad diet? Share your insights with me in the comments.