The Gluten Myth

I was working with a client the other day that suffers from headaches. A practitioner that she is seeing to relieve the tension in her neck suggested she may be suffering from a gluten sensitivity and that eliminating wheat from her diet may be helpful in relieving her symptoms. During our training session, she asked me what I thought. Well...I actually have thought, and read, and researched a LOT on this topic. From familial gluten sensitivity to mass media hysteria, it's been seriously on my radar.

Here's what I think in a nutshell: If you don't suffer from Celiac Disease, you may...MAY...be sensitive to gluten. But, it's WAY more likely that you're allergic to shellfish.

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In fact, a recent study that was done to examine the prevalence of gluten sensitivity in the US found that only about 0.55% of the population were actually gluten sensitive.  While others have suggested that upwards of 7% are gluten sensitive, no study has yet been able to prove even close to that number.

But, the popular press, fueled by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, are quick to ignore the data (shocking). Wheat Belly, a super popular book written by cardiologist, William Davis, has thrown gasoline on the fire suggesting that wheat is truly the ROOT of our obesity problem (and pretty much all disease besides). (n.b. For a pretty good tear down of the absurdity of the book by a true sufferer from Celiac, check out this blog post from Pete over at NoGlutenNoProblem).

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The problem is, there is very little data to confirm that gluten is the monster protein everyone suggests it is, and worse, none of the results from the studies done on gluten sensitivity agree. In fact, in the most recent study on those suffering from "gluten sensitivity", patients showed massive improvement in symptoms by decreasing certain short-chain carbohydrates (FODMAPs), NOT gluten. These FODMAPs are the carbohydrates are found in many common fruits and vegetables! Something else besides gluten was causing their problem. But, until researchers blinded people to their bias, they were convinced it was the gluten.

But, haven't you read that gluten makes you fat, gives you asthma and eczema, and makes your GUT LEAKY??!!  Actually, not true...on all accounts. In fact, there are several studies that show that going on a gluten free diet can often cause initial weight GAIN (partially because "gluten free" labeled foods are just high fat, corn substituted, processed crap)! The data on asthma and gluten is in patients with CELIAC disease (i.e. there is a strong immune response) not gluten sensitivity. Eczema, again only seemingly associated with celiac disease. And, several studies have shown that not only does gluten NOT affect intestinal permeability (i.e. leaky gut) in people with gluten sensitivity, but a gluten free diet can actually adversely affect your healthy gut microbiota (...leading to illness and potentially weight gain!).

Imagine you cut all this crap out of your diet...you would probably lose weight too.

Here's the thing. I'm not saying that people aren't allergic and/or sensitive to wheat or gluten. They are. There is no doubt. About 1.7 million people in the US (which is significantly less, incidentally then the number of millionaires in the country - of which there are ~9 million, or 2.5% of the population). And they most likely experience digestive issues, headaches, and possibly even skin problems (as do many allergy sufferers). But, not EVERYONE is sensitive to this little protein. Just like, not everyone is allergic to peanuts, or strawberries or shrimp. Some people are. And they need to avoid peanuts, or strawberries or shrimp. Because if they don't, they may end up in the emergency room. But that doesn't mean that every person should nix  PB&J's, Strawberry Shortcake, or Fra Diavolo.

It is true that the number of people suffering from gluten sensitivity does appear to be on the rise. But so are ALL food allergies (which may actually have to do with excessive cleanliness, but that's a separate dirty blog post...). (n.b. I'm not addressing the GMO issue here, although I do think that may be a valid food allergy argument...but even still, there is no GMO wheat in the USA currently).

So to wrap up the gluten myth, think on this one...according to the numbers, you are much more likely to BE a millionaire (right now) than to be sensitive to gluten. Go check your bank account...I'll wait.

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