Myth: You will feel better and lose weight by avoiding gluten.
Fact: Not necessarily so. Only a very small percentage of people must eat a gluten-free diet, and for the rest of us, gluten-free may have some benefit and maybe not. Weight loss is doubtful.
What to Do? Try it if you have some unexplained and persistent symptoms. Avoiding gluten might help…or not. In general, try to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less breads, cereals and pastas.
Gluten-free this and gluten-free that. The gluten-free diet has become the latest eating fad. But is it for you?
For doctors, the presence of celiac disease has always been the primary reason for avoiding gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. For the estimated 1 percent of the population with this genetic condition, eating such grains can trigger an auto-immune reaction that damages the lining of the gut, causing abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, rashes, and malabsorption.
Beyond that 1 percent is where you start getting into myth-land. Avoiding gluten may or may not be helpful for the 99 percent.
Today, the gluten-free diet has generated great appeal far, far beyond the 1 percent. According to the market research firm Mintel, the gluten-free industry is booming. It has grown 27 percent since 2009 with annual revenues now hitting $7 billion.
A problem with wheat itself – beyond gluten
What’s the attraction?
An undefined percentage of the population may have some kind of issue with gluten commonly referred to as sensitivity or allergy or intolerance. Keep in mind that wheat, in particular, forms a major part of the diet (think bread, pasta, and pastry) and is used as an ingredient in many processed foods. This ever-increasing exposure makes for ever-increasing complaints because, for one thing, gluten is not well digested in the human intestine, with or without celiac. Another factor involved here is that you could be sensitive to something else besides the gluten, something else in the wheat. Moreover, simple wheat has undergone multiple growing since the 1950s, when agricultural scientists began cross-breeding the grain to make hardier, shorter and better-growing plants.
It all gets very complex, even for doctors. That’s why in 2011, a panel of celiac experts convened and largely agreed about the existence of a condition related to gluten – they call it non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But the experts know very little about what the disease precisely is, how many people have it, or even how to identify it. What they know is that a person’s health improves on a gluten-free diet and gets worse again when gluten is resumed.
Meanwhile, the gluten-free diet industry has grabbed onto all of this interest and apparently successfully marketed the idea that its products can promote weight loss. There is little evidence for that, however. But cutting out wheat products and gluten in general could pave the way to weight loss because you then avoid things like bread, pasta, cakes and cookies and other high-calorie refined carbohydrates that indeed contribute to weight gain.
The Sinatra Solution
From my standpoint, a gluten-free diet is useful only if you really do better without gluten. If you don’t have a problem with gluten, an avoidance diet is not necessarily any healthier for you.
In my medical practice, I have definitely seen some patients with wheat and gluten issues who benefitted from eliminating wheat and flour products. Most notable have been some cases of premature ventricular contractions (PVCs for short) – common skipped or extra heart beats that scare the heck out of people when they happen. PVCs are usually benign and can be triggered by stress, too much caffeine or alcohol, and deficiencies of magnesium and potassium. In gluten-sensitive individuals, eating bread, bagels, crackers, pasta, and other grain-based food items can trigger PVCs.
I have also seen some patients with psoriasis who have benefitted from gluten elimination.
To provide some additional understanding, I need to mention the issue of wheat allergy. Gluten and celiac aside, there are many people who are sensitive to wheat itself, and given the widespread exposure, it is not surprising. There are other proteins and factors in wheat beside gluten and they can cause problems for some individuals.
Any food allergy manifests as an abnormal immune reaction to some naturally-occurring protein. Most common allergies involve wheat, milk, egg, soy, nuts, sugar, and shellfish. Such reactions can be immediate or delayed. The most common symptoms, according to specialists I have spoken to, are headache, fatigue, and depression in adults. In kids: headache, stomach aches, muscle and joint pains, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and hyperactivity. These specialists say that the most frequently-eaten and craved foods are the most frequent causes of symptoms. Dosage is also important. A particular food eaten once every four or five days may be fine, but taken on a daily basis may cause symptoms because of a build-up effect. For doctors, this is a tricky area, and if you suspect some reaction to wheat, or any other food, I strongly suggest you see a naturopathic doctor or one who is a member of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.
My recommendations are:
- That if you have some unexplained condition or illness, see an experienced physician or at least try going off of gluten or wheat to see if it has an effect;
- As a general rule, try to limit refined or processed carbohydrates like breads, pasta, cookies, muffins, etc. in your diet, favoring fresh fruits and vegetables instead. Read about My PAM Diet to learn more about my recommendations for healthy eating.
Interested in learning more about how your diet can affect your health?
Visit my Video Library and watch my Healthy Cooking Videos, in which my son, Step, and I demonstrate how to prepare delicious, heart-healthy dishes and drinks while explaining the health benefits associated with consuming them.
For detailed information about how which foods can help you prevent and recover from various illnesses, as well as lots of yummy and healthy recipes for you to try, check out my book, The Healing Kitchen.
Go to Drsinatra.com, and read:
- Ludvigsson JF, et al. The Oslo deﬁnitions for coeliac disease and related terms. Gut, 2013;62:43–52.
© 2013 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.