“I’m gluten free!” is likely the most polarizing statement in the health community today. Progressive practitioners (and their clients) devoutly stand by the role gluten can play in inflammation and overall immunity, while conventional medicine dismisses its legitimacy and even condemns the “dangers” of a gluten-free diet.
Mainstream media has dutifully played its role by jumping on the topic and constantly feeding us the hype, and then rejoicing in the opportunity to run a follow up feature with the gluten-free tag as the villain. But as with most stories, there are three sides: His, hers, and the truth. And in this case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
For the most part, gluten’s overexposure – and the awareness it brings – is positive. When every news medium is covering it from CNN to US Weekly, it sheds a much needed spotlight on the physiology and benefits of the gluten-free diet. All press is good press – especially when it brings to light the fact that gluten is linked to over 50 different disease states. Along the way though, the attention from the media has given gluten-free a bit of a bad boy complex. It’s seductive and full of promises, but it doesn’t always deliver in the way one might hope. Depending on your intentions, the gluten-free road can be a convoluted one, and it can result in less-than-optimal eating.
There’s a TON of information out there – some of it skewed towards making sales numbers pop, and some of it downright conflicting. But, it’s essential that we get some clarity on the topic. Quite literally, if we don’t rise above the hype and misinformation, and get to a place of sound, actionable information, it’s an issue of life or death for some.
It is estimated that about 1% of Americans have celiac disease and that for every one person with celiac disease, there are an estimated six or seven people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
For this population, it has been shown that there is a 35-72% increased risk of death (primarily due to cancer, heart and respiratory disease, but other causes are at play here as well).
In a later post, we’ll discuss the complex differences between sensitivities to gluten and celiac disease, but for now I want to start a little broader. (It’s always easier for me to learn when I first get some context around the bigger issue at hand.) So before diving into the physiological weeds, let’s back up and look at why we’re talking about gluten in the first place.
Gluten’s Rise to Fame
How did this little protein fraction get itself on the map? And why are everyone and their dog on a gluten-free diet?
Well, there are multiple factors that have led to the awareness around, and increased prevalence of, gluten sensitivities.
1. Celiac Disease Gets its Day in the Sun. Kind of.
Celiac disease is four times more common now than 60 years ago, affecting an estimated 1 in 100 people (that’s three million Americans, people). The gluten-free message is getting more play because the only current treatment for the disease is eliminating gluten from your diet. The disturbing part is that despite this rise in recognition, 83% of people with celiac disease are unaware of their issue. Still work to do, indeed.
2. Progressive Practitioners Get It.
Increasingly, Americans are seeing progressive and functional medicine practitioners who take a more holistic approach to wellness. Overall, a progressive education has a more robust focus on nutrition than conventional medicine. For example, gluten has received a lot of attention in forward-thinking and effective treatments for conditions along the autism spectrum and ADHD. Also, progressive practitioners may more readily implement practice changes based on current research, where conventional medicine can be beholden to standard reimbursement rules and regulations. Case in point: It has been found that it takes seeing – on average – five physicians and 10-11 years to diagnose gluten sensitivity or intolerance when using conventional means.
3. Celebrity Evangelism.
This is where gluten really gets its time in the limelight. The progressive practitioners who impart accurate wisdom around the critical role gluten can play in our health don’t always take insurance. If they do, they can’t bill insurance for the services that can be most effective, like removing food sensitivities. So for the most part, they end up preaching to a pretty exclusive choir – namely the stars that can pay out of pocket each time, for every visit. Not only can celebrities afford these kinds of appointments – it’s their job to learn about anything that will make them look and feel their best, considering how they are scrutinized by the media, and the fact that their health, appearance and weight frequently determines whether they work or not. The more they are on screen, talking about their gluten-free lifestyle, the more they are talked about (and emulated). I am in no way condoning that we should receive health advice from celebrities (quite the contrary), but we can’t deny the buzz around how going gluten free has our favorite A-listers feeling amazing.
4. Big Food Getting into the Game.
This one is a two-sided coin. You can’t ignore the power that food manufacturers have on public awareness – whether their intentions are authentic or they are just trying to grab their piece of the ever-expanding gluten-free pie. Big food has been promoting their gluten-free lineups like it’s their job. Well, technically it is their job, I know – but it still doesn’t make it right to fool customers with their misleading marketing claims. The product might be gluten-free, but at what expense? Do you know what they use instead of wheat and other gluten-containing grains? Cornstarch, white rice, potato flour/starch, added sugars, and a whole bunch of other insulin-spiking, chemical-laden, inflammatory, and otherwise worthless ingredients. Nevertheless, it is still spreading the gluten-free word.
5. Thinking Paleo.
So why would what is promoted as one of the mainstays of our diet be the source of such digestive, immunological grief? To explain this point I need to go a little Paleo on you for a minute. Humans have been on earth for around 2 million years. Grains containing gluten were only introduced about 10,000 years ago. Add to that the fact that 30 percent of people of European descent carry the gene for celiac disease. Therefore, there are theories that this mismatch, or lack of genetic adaptation, has caused an “evolutionary challenge” that created adverse human reactions to gluten.
6. Body Burdened.
Another possibility as to why there is such an increase today in not only gluten sensitivities, but all sensitivities (including allergies) is a general toxic overload of our system or what is known as “body burden.”
There are now over 3000 chemicals added to our food supply, and more than 75,000 chemicals used for other purposes in North America. We are inundated with chemical-based products every day – pesticides on our non-organic foods, artificial fragrances in perfumes, lotions, hair products, room sprays, cleaning supplies, fabric softeners…the list goes on. Even if you are vigilant about insisting upon fragrance-, phthalate- and paraben-free cleaners and cosmetics, VOC-free paint, and organic produce, you are likely inadvertently exposed in the environment. Heavy metals, including lead, are in our water, and chlorine and other volatile organic compounds are used in many products that surround you.
As your body gets older and those exposures accumulate, the health of your digestive system is compromised (i.e. dysfunction within your microbiome – the cornerstone of your immune system) leading to decreased resistance to other foreign bodies (e.g. foods you don’t tolerate), which also helps explain the increase in sensitivities over the years.
I don’t say this to induce an OCD episode that has you searching for a bodysuit made of bubble wrap. These are things we simply can’t control most of the time. But you can control what you eat and make better choices to lower this burden.
Today, it’s not only the process that’s different, it’s the product.
Back in your granny’s day, dough was mixed in the KitchenAid and left to rise overnight on the counter. This rising process – part of the traditional method of baking – allowed a higher portion of the gluten to be assimilated by the yeast. So home-baked bread was not only delicious, it naturally had less gluten in it. The majority of bread is now made in commercial kitchens designed for maximized efficiency. The quick-producing, industrialized methods allow little time for the yeast to ferment, which means the dough retains more gluten.
Additionally, a powdered, concentrated form of gluten – vital wheat gluten – is commonly used as an additive in the U.S. in place of the naturally occurring gluten formed from kneading the dough to provide better baking properties (read: less waste, higher margins) – heat resistance, elasticity, malleability, longer shelf life.
Making matters [much] worse, instead of naturally allowing the dough to age in the open air, potassium bromate is used to expedite the process. (Of note, potassium bromate has been labeled as a Category 2B carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and it is banned throughout the European Union, Canada, Nigeria, Brazil, Peru and China.)
Farming methods are also a concern. Although genetically modified wheat is not on the market (yet!), conventional wheat is still doused in the glycophosphate herbicide (read: RoundUp, read: Monsanto) just prior to harvest to increase the yield.
Finally, once the bread is baked and packaged, it often has genetically modified ingredients added to it – namely corn and soy – which are hard for our internal systems to tolerate (we’ll school you on GMO’s and pesticides in later posts).
To sum it up, no matter what form the wheat ends up taking – we start with grain that is harvested and processed in a way that leaves it loaded with a toxic herbicide, and manufactured in a way that not only increases the gluten, but introduces a synthetic, concentrated gluten additive. And as consumers, we are supersaturated with this super gluten, as it’s tucked away inside product after product.
So if your body can’t tolerate gluten or wheat, you might feel like you’re sitting under a tree full of birds without an umbrella. The shit is just everywhere.
So. Now you know.
And really, it’s no wonder gluten is all the rage. The gluten-free sermon is being preached far and wide, with a lot of the mainstream messages being clouded with punchy sales pitches and mischievous marketing twists.
But I figure you came here for the truth, so I’m going to keep giving it to you.
You’re going to want to read the next post sitting down, because the ride on the way to learning what gluten actually is – and more importantly, what is does – gets a little bumpy.
See you next time.
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