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Should you avoid avoiding gluten?

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | June 2, 2014

249322_10151167832698096_351765736_nGluten is the Riddler of the nutrition world. It’s not like refined sugar, which is more like the Joker in that it’s terrifying, crazy, and absolutely deadly. Instead gluten is just confusing, potentually malicious and–from the perspective of someone who helps people eat for a living–incredibly annoying.

Gluten is a protein found in several grains, including wheat, barley and rye. About 1 in 133 people in the United States have Celiac Disease, an immune reaction in the small intestines that can lead to malabsorption of other nutrients. Common symptoms are bloating and diarrhea.

But unless you’ve been holed up in the Batcave for this entire decade (keeping the Batman metaphor going), you’ve probably noticed that a hell of a lot more than 1-in-133 people avoid gluten. Due to the popularity of books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, as well as post-Atkins trends such as the Paleo and blood type diets, many people have started avoiding the stuff, claiming that they may not have Celiac Disease, but that they’re “gluten intolerant”.

On one hand, it’s great. People stop eating the absurd amount of grains most Americans eat and they feel better. They lose weight. They have more energy. They think more clearly. Because of this, I support them. I was a huge advocate for the grain-free modifications to the P90X2 and P90X3 nutrition plans and I’ve assisted several people in shifting to the gluten-free lifestyle because they felt it would help them with everything from weight loss to ADHD.

The only problem is, while there’s nothing detrimental about avoiding some grains, the whole gluten-free trend is built on a giant load of Penguin guano. (See what I did there?) The science behind gluten intolerance is paper thin. Most of the proof I’ve read is anecdotal. And the books? I’m sure that Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis is well-meaning, but every time I see or read an interview with him, he completely shifts around the “facts” regarding his industrially manipulated wheat theory. I just can’t take it seriously.

Then there’s the demand for “gluten-free” baked goods. If you want to replace flour tortillas with corn tortillas to avoid gluten, that’s cool, but don’t go buying gluten-free brownies thinking that you’re doing yourself any favors. I would bet my bike (and that says a lot) that the massive sugar dump you’re subjecting your system to when you eat those things is a billion times worse than the hit you take from a little bit of some obscure wheat-based protein.

Of course there’s also the blood-sucking marketers adding to the hysteria. Recently, my fellow nerd Steve Edwards found a bottle of “gluten-free water” and I recently bought some olive olive only to learn that it, too, is gluten-free. Thank God!

And yet, as I said, people do great when they cut out grains, which is why I help them. Why?  First, Americans eat too many grains. It’s reasonable to expect that, because we’re a country built on grain farming, we’d eat a shitload of them. But the problem with most grain-based foods is that they’re caloric; they have less nutrients than fruits and veggies; and–given they’re generally highly processed–they’re easily manipulated by industry into anti-nutrient foods like white bread and Twinkies. Get rid of all that crap and you’re bound to feel better!

Second, it’s empowering. Avoiding gluten takes patience and willpower. The mind-body connection is strong. When you take control of your dietary situation, whether you’re giving up gluten, red meat, or refined sugar, the pyschological benefits are bound to have an impact. My personal author-crush Michael Pollan recently told the Huffington Post that gluten-free diets work via “the power of suggestion.”

Yet, I’m not 100% sure I agreed with Michael–as much as I still worship the organic soil he walks on. While these are all compelling reasons a gluten-free diet would work despite its scientific backing being in league with ear candling and the Cabbage Soup Diet, it still bugged me that it worked so well for some people.

Last week, I learned a big potential “why”. As you surely recall in the 12-part Batman story arc Hush (written by Jeff Loeb, penciled by Jim Lee, inked by Scott Williams, and colored by Alex Sinclair–which I’m assuming you also recall), The Caped Crusader originally thought that the Riddler had stolen ex-Robin Jason Todd’s dead body when, in fact, the Riddler had nothing to do with it. Jason was never dead and had, spoiler alert, become the villain The Red Hood.

In other words, maybe we’re pinning the crime on the wrong bad guy! That’s right! Researchers in Australia have discovered that the nutrient causing all that bloating and gas might not be gluten, but rather a carb called fructan, which you’ll also find in wheat.

Whoa!

Fructan is a fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharide and/or polyol, or a FODMAP. You’ll also find it in agave, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, garlic, and onions. Other FODMAPs include fructose, lactose, and galactans.  Most people process them just fine–but some people don’t. Studies linking them to IBS (which has many, if not all the same symptoms is gluten-intolerance) go back to the 90s.

To get the complete skinny on the Gluten v. FODMAP study, here’s a good summary at the Huffington Post. 

And here’s an article putting into a historical perspective on NPR’s blog, The Salt.

Both of these articles have done a great job laying down the science, so there’s no point in me re-doing it here. (Although they both fail to mention that there are no FODMAPs in barley, so if you gave up the brewskis for gluten reasons, well, you know. I’m just sayin’…)

Instead, let’s consider the larger lesson. First, the moment that Australian study landed, the entire gluten landscape shifted. Science has a habit of doing that, so it’s unwise to let your guard down. As much as I like the Huffington Post article above, its headline, “Gluten Intolerance May Be Completely Fake: Study” is rather foolhardy. Another study could come out any day establishing a stronger link between gluten and one of the many other issues it’s associated with, maybe one of the mental ones like depression or ADHD. If that happens, we’ll have every reason in the world to hate gluten.

That said, if this study hits big and suddenly a bunch of diets come out blaming FODMAPs for everything from bunions to cauliflower ear to that thing you did on the boss’s desk with you-know-who at the office Christmas party last year, take it with a grain of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. Dogma is for suckers.

However, if you’re living the gluten-free lifestyle and loving it, there’s no reason to change. You should probably avoid proselytizing about it because you’ll now officially sound like a dumb-ass, but there’s no reason for you to start eating bread if you don’t want to. Although it might be worth experimenting a little with FODMAPs to see if you can further solve the dietary enigmas that riddle you so.

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3 thoughts on “Should you avoid avoiding gluten?

  1. Matt G.

    Wow, I am impressed. Sure, you’ve referenced comics and superheros before but now you’re calling out specific storylines. Awesome! I love the art in that series. I felt a little cheated when they retconned the Jason Todd fight from being Clayface pretending to be Todd the whole time to Todd being there in the flesh for part of the fight and the rest being CF.

    Did you read the further adventures of Hush in Gotham Knights? That series was a fun read before they killed it with the New 52 reboot.

    My almost 2 year old gets eczema when she has gluten, but only from “modern” gluten. I know how it sounds, but she does just fine with fermented grains like sourdough . And she’s also fine with “ancient” grains. It’s definitely not celiac’s and I don’t think I’d call it an allergy… I guess it’s a “sensitivity”. And it’s a great built-in excuse when people try to force feed her cookies and processed crap.

    Reply
    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      Matt – I do my best. Frankly, nutrition sucks up most of my reading time (and my book buying budget) so my Batman knowledge isn’t what it should be. I love Hush though. I have the Absolute hardcover of it and I got to interview Jeff Loeb once, which was a real treat. I didn’t follow the Gotham Knights stuff, but I try to find as much Red Hood as I can. Jason Todd is one weird guy.

      That’s interesting about your daughter’s condition. (I mean, I’m sorry it’s happening, but I’m glad you sorted it out.) I suppose it gives credence to Davis’ theory. He just presents it in such an inconsistent way. What about sprouted breads? Are you sure it’s not the sugar?

      Reply
      1. Matt G.

        I am fairly out of touch with modern DC as well. I grab what I can at the library. Some of the new stuff from Tony Daniels (Detective) and Snyder (Batman) is decent. The Court of Owls was a fun read although based on preposterous notions. Grant Morrison’s stuff (death, return, Batman Incorporated) was pretty loopy.

        Have you seen Under the Red Hood? One of DC’s better animation efforts in recent years.

        So Cool! Loeb’s name is on so many great Batman stories. not to mention LOST & the only watchable season of Heroes.

        I haven’t read Davis’ work, but production of so many different types of foods has been bastardized over the years, it’s not surprising things like this can happen. I’m pretty sure you’re written on the topic before. I asked my wife about sprouted breads a few weeks ago but I forgot what she said. I’ll have to pass on the info you presented here on the sugar. Thanks!

        Reply

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