Back in December, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan proposed a list of overused and “misused” words to be cast aside with the old year. No surprise that “gluten-free” was among them. Yes, there’s a practical need for the label, yet slapping it on
things that have no connection is a cynical corporate play for clueless consumers who buy something simply because they think it’s healthy.
He’s got a point.
It seems every grocery store nowadays has a section if not an entire aisle dedicated to gluten-free food products. What explains this sudden emergence? Did we see a sudden surge in celiac disease? Or is it just another food fad?
Let’s define some terms first.
“Gluten” is one word for two proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains. It feeds the plant embryo during growth, and it’s what gives the dough elasticity in breads and other baked goods. No gluten, no good French loaf.
Gluten is also added to other foods such as meat substitutes and is also used as a stabilizing agent for sauces, salad dressings and dairy products.
Most of the gluten we eat comes from wheat. Those of us allergic to wheat avoid gluten, since most products that use other grains are often processed on equipment used for processing wheat, and cross-contamination is always a possibility. Even so, not so many of us are wheat-allergic – 0.4% of children and 0.5% of adults, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Children typically outgrow it by the time they turn 12.
Celiac disease (CD) is not an allergy. It’s an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. In a person with CD, gluten triggers antibodies that attack the lining of the small intestine, making it unable to absorb nutrients properly. It can trigger diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating; it can lead to problems like anemia and cancer. Those with CD definitely want to leave it alone – a bit of a chore, even with all the increased choices available these days.
Mainstream figures show CD to be just a little less rare than wheat allergy, affecting just 1% of the population.
The number of gluten-sensitive individuals would likely be considerably higher if we were to include those with mercury toxicity – from dental amalgam or otherwise – as heavy metals tend to block enzymes required to digest gluten properly (likewise, casein – a milk protein). But it’s important to remember that the mere presence of amalgam does not necessarily indicate toxicity, let alone their being the sole trigger for any systemic illness. Whether and what kind of illness emerges depends on many factors but most fundamentally the state of the extracellular matrix or biological terrain.
(Indeed, we have many patients who experience some of their greatest healing while they work on improving their terrain, even before specific dental issues are addressed. See, for instance, this case history of a patient with multiple chemical sensitivities.)
All that being the case, why are grocery stores offering so much valuable real estate to gluten-free foods? Why are celebrities singing the praises of diets absent of gluten?
The fact that they are and that so many of us are quick to emulate our famous favorites – whether we admit it or not – points toward gluten-free being a fad, with all the myths that tend to come with food crazes.
For instance, a lot of people believe that getting rid of gluten may help them lose weight. And that might happen if you completely cut out things like cakes, cookies, crackers and breads. But if you just replace them with gluten-free versions, you may wind up eating a lot more sugar, fat and other ingredients used to mimic the consistency created by gluten.
Will going gluten-free give you more energy? One newspaper writer went a year without gluten for assignment and as a patient who believed she had CD. When it turned out she didn’t have CD, she mentioned the increased energy to her doctor. He told her that it was probably the loss of excess of carbs that did the trick.
There are also some not-so-great effects that can come from foregoing gluten if you don’t need to. For one, you may lose the benefits of eating whole grains – a good source of fiber, complex carbs, vitamins and minerals. Any sufferer of CD will tell you how difficult it is to replace the nutrients they lose from not eating gluten.
On the plus side, cutting down on processed foods such as store-bought bakery items can encourage greater consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy, in addition to whole grains – foods that are not only good for maintaining your weight but for providing sustained energy and strong teeth.
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of CD or otherwise suspect an intolerance to gluten, it’s important to consult with an integrative physician or naturopath. It’s the only way to be sure of a correct diagnosis and a sensible, doable plan for addressing the situation.
Gluten-free should be done for a good reason, not a hunch or a hope or just because it’s the trendy thing to do.
Food products image by roses daughter, via Flickr