We all know that guy – the one who lives in perpetual search of the most obscure of anything, the one who wears clothes knitted by Peruvian tribes people, listens to deconstructed whale song techno, and drinks coffee harvested by the soft paws of blind squirrels. He is forever at the fringe of reality; constantly pushing the frontiers of niche cool, and firmly committed to leaving anything behind as soon as three other people like it and it becomes ‘commercial’ or ‘mainstream’. He collects band names. He is serious about being serious. He eats gluten.
Why would someone with such an obsessive finger on the trend pulse not be onboard with gluten-free eating, an approach to nutrition that is so, like, in right now? Well, for the same reason he no longer listens to Mumford & Sons – simply too many fans. Our friend was the first to throw all the grains out of his pantry back in the day when the only people who knew about gluten were two hippies and a backup singer for Enya. But now that 30% of American adults are actively trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets, Mr Cool has written it all off as a fad for social sheep. And he wouldn’t be the only one. In that curious way that people like to loudly condemn the way total strangers lead their own lives, anti-gluten crusaders and pro-gluten zealouts all over the internet are having virtual brawls about bagels and bran. So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, we should probably start at the beginning.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, most famously wheat. The term actually refers specifically to the combination of proteins in wheat called gliadins and glutenins, but it is also generically used to refer to these proteins in other cereal grains, such as
Gluten is what makes bread and pizza dough elastic and gives some baked foods their springiness. Since vast quantities of bread, pasta, pizza and noodles are consumed around the world on a daily basis without vast numbers of deaths, we can safely assume that gluten is not lethally toxic. However, evidence seems to suggest that there are a number of negative side effects to eating gluten and that sensitivity to this protein – specifically the gliadin part – varies significantly from person to person.
So, Gluten’s Not Good?
The debate about gluten has become particularly intense over the past few years with two primary camps. The first declares that whole grains – many of which contain gluten – are a critical part of a healthy diet and will ensure radical longevity. In this camp are many vegans, vegetarians and rawtarians. The opposing camp claims that grains in general, and gluten-rich grains in particular, are little seeds of evil and should be avoided at all costs. This camp is home to most paleo, LCHF and primal eaters.
The arguments against gluten are chiefly founded on the idea that human beings have not evolved much physically in the last 50 000 years, and that our bodies have not adapted to digest wheat and other grains with gluten protein. This is compounded by the prevalence of gluten in the modern western diet, which to this writer is the core of the debate. Before we get into the negative effects that gluten can have on our systems, it’s worth taking a look at the how the food we eat has changed over the centuries.
All Gluten Is Not Created Equal
Let’s take a look at wheat – for many the antichrist of good gut nutrition. The correlation between high levels of wheat consumption in modern diets and a host of diseases seems high. But, human beings have been eating wheat for millennia, while the health problems that we today associate with this grain are relatively new. So, what’s up?
For one thing, the wheat we eat today barely resembles the wheat our ancestors ate. Thanks to industrialisation in the 1800’s, wheat became a highly processed product, with the nutritious bran and germ parts separated form the endosperm, which is the starchy element – with almost no fibre or nutritional value – that we find in most prepared foods today. This is an empty calorie bonanza that contributes to blood sugar spikes, obesity and increasingly prolific diseases like diabetes. Also, ancient cultures used to ferment and sprout wheat, especially before baking, which used to make the wheat grain easier to digest and the nutrients more accessible. These aspects of the wheat debate don’t even take into account the way wheat has been genetically modified in the 20th century to increase harvests and make it more resistant to pesticides and herbicides. The plant that is eventually grown may look like wheat to the eye, but whether our bodies recognise it as such is not as certain.
What’s The Damage?
Gluten is probably not as high on your list of major fears as, say, that dream where you’re naked at school, or that clown from ‘It’. That’s probably because, unless you’re a celiac, gluten’s not particularly scary, though studies are increasingly suggesting that most people have reasons to be concerned.
In individuals with celiac disease, the immune system attacks gluten proteins when they get into the digestive system, mistaking them for dangerous invaders like bad bacteria. These attacks, however, don’t only effect the proteins. The immune system also attacks an enzyme in the cells of the digestive tract itself, degrading the wall and qualifying celiac disease as an autoimmune disease. Only about 1% of the population are celiacs, though evidence suggests that this percentage is increasing and that 80% of celiacs are undiagnosed.
Lower down the scale is gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance – less dangerous than celiac disease, but far more common and still fraught with potential ills. As this is clinically difficult to diagnose it is impossible to estimate what percentage of the population has this condition, but some of the physical symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain and discomfort, gas, and fatigue. Studies have also linked inflamed intestines and degenerated intestinal lining to gluten, leading to leaky gut – a condition that is as horrible as it sounds.
If you suspect that your body responds poorly to gluten – and with the poor quality of highly processed grains that we are generally exposed to today, that probably includes most people – it somehow makes sense that the symptoms would be physical and manifested in the gut. Astonishingly, though, gluten also has major effects on the brain. In gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy, neurological illnesses can be exacerbated – or even caused – by gluten consumption.
The main disorder linked to gluten is cerebellar ataxia, a serious brain disease that compromises motor function. This is a very rare adverse reaction and wouldn’t be something that seen often. Various trials have also shown that patients with major conditions like schizophrenia, autism and epilepsy can achieve positive results by following gluten-free diets.
What’s The ‘Cure’?
First things first – establish whether you are actually sensitive to gluten. Remove gluten from your diet for 30 days and see if it makes a difference to your general wellbeing. Metrics you want to keep an eye on are
- abnominal inflammation and bloating
- quality of sleep
- clarity of thinking and concentration
- skin condition
Improvements in any or all of these factors probably suggest that gluten is having a negative effect on your system and that you should consider cutting it out for good. Due to the popularity of this eating approach these days it is easy to find gluten-free substitutes at most health shops and good grocery stores. For extra marks eliminate grains in general and watch the results – you may be surprised.