We have seen misinformation dominate the food industry. I can remember eating Snackwell cookies in the 90's until the cows came home and thinking to myself "I can eat as many of these as I want to because they are fat free." That was when fat was labeled as the enemy--to both our waistlines and our hearts. Fat has since become a macronutrient found to have amazing health benefits when consumed appropriately. Instead of our enemy, certain fats are even considered our allies in the fight against the bulge.
After fat free everything came soy everything. Soy was the new health food. It was found that soy consumption in Asia was linked to a decreased risk for certain cancers and diseases of old age. But then the food industry took over and made soy into absolutely every possible food from hot dogs to ice cream to chicken nuggets. Soy consumption in Asia usually consists of small amounts of fermented miso or natto as well as small servings of tufu or tempeh. When consumed like this, soy may have a health benefit. But when we consume everything from soy cookies to soy milk to soy ice cream, this is when soy can become a huge health problem and actually disrupt our thyroid gland and disturb the estrogen balance in the body. Not things you want to mess with if a healthy metabolism is something you are shooting for.
So now we are in the world of gluten free everything. Will history repeat itself so that in 20 years we will look back and scoff at how foolish we were to think that being gluten free was healthy? I think not. That being said, the food industry is doing an excellent job at making gluten free cookies, cake, pizza and burritos sound like health foods. “Gluten-free” is not synonymous with “healthy.” However, being gluten free while eating a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet is definitely not a fad diet and has some wonderful health benefits.
The difference between fat free, soy and gluten free is found in the research that is now being published about gluten and its many detrimental health implications. There are now hundreds of well-designed research studies that show the negative health impact of consuming gluten in certain individuals, if not in most individuals. We also now understand the mechanism of action (at least partially) as to how gluten exerts its harmful effects.
You see, our digestive tract from our mouth to our anus should be one solid tube. If I were to give each of you a small marble to swallow, that marble wouldn't end up lost in our digestive tract. Instead, it would eventually pass all the way down this solid tube and out the other end. There are no gaps in our digestive tract where this marble can get lost and simply roam free in our bodies.
Let's specifically take a look at our small intestine. Our small intestine is a long tube lined with small projections called villi which have even smaller projections sticking out from them called microvilli. Basically, on a microscopic level, it is a tube filled with shag carpet that has tiny little shags on top of it. It is these "shags" that are responsible for bringing nutrients, vitamins and minerals into our bodies. Our body can sense when we need to pull in some nutrient we have eaten. For example, we are running low on calcium. Well, our brain tells the shags to be on the lookout for calcium and when it finds it, the shag binds the calcium and pulls it into our body. For those science purists out there, I know that this is a very simplified explanation of what occurs but bear with me.
So the brain along with the shag decide what nutrients get to enter our bodies. This barrier between the food in our small intestine and the rest of our body is said to be "selectively permeable," in other words, the body has a say in what enters and what does not. Food/nutrients do not get to simply pass through at all hours of the day. Remember, our digestive tract is one solid tube with no holes leaching into our body.
At least, it is supposed to be one solid tube. However, each cell in our small intestine is held together as if it were glued to its neighboring cell to form something called "tight junctions." This name is very apropos because the cells are held together so tightly that nothing can pass through unless the body wants it or needs it to. In the picture on the right, this is seen in the lightly pink colored intestinal calls. They are choosing which vitamins and minerals to bring into the bloodstream.
How does this all tie back around to gluten? Well, research has shown that when we eat gluten, we increase the production of a molecule in our body called zonulin. Zonulin is an enzyme that attacks the glue holding our tight junctions together and starts to create spaces and gaps in between those cells. The more gluten we eat, the higher our level of zonulin is and the more or bigger gaps we create. Take a look at the bright pink cells on the right side of the picture above. We are no longer in control of what enters our bloodstream and instead, random food particles enter our blood. This turns our solid digestive tract tube into a tube with holes in it. This becomes a problem because our body's immune system does not recognize these random food particles and so it starts an immune system attack to destroy this food thinking it is a new bacteria invading the body.
And so starts a horrific cycle of consuming gluten, creating gaps in the digestive tract, allowing undigested food particles to enter our body and our body attacking it with the immune system. This, my friends, is low-grade, chronic inflammation at its finest (or worst). And as we all now know, inflammation is an underlying part of absolutely every chronic disease known to humankind. The figure on the left shows how this “leaky gut” can impact every system in the body.
We have seen a huge increase in the past decade in folks who have been diagnosed with Celiac disease (an autoimmune condition in which our body attacks the small intestine every time we eat gluten) but there has been an even bigger increase in the number of people diagnosed with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. In other words, these individuals do not have an autoimmune diagnosis but still experience negative health effects from gluten consumption.
Why are we starting to see such a huge increase in people impacted by gluten? A number of reasons really. First, we are much more aware and physicians are really starting to look for individuals who may have a gluten issue. Therefore, diagnoses are on the rise. Also, we are consuming gluten in higher quantities now that we ever have before. I challenge you to look at all of the food labels in your grocery cart and set aside
those foods that have gluten. It is in almost every processed food you can find. Overexposure to gluten is another reason we are seeing an increase in gluten sensitivity. Finally, the gluten we are consuming is most likely genetically modified which makes it much more inflammatory than the gluten our grandparents ate a couple generations ago.
Overall, in my nutrition practice, I am seeing more and more clients who can benefit from going gluten free. From individuals with inflammatory bowel conditions to those with autoimmune conditions to those with arthritis, depression and anxiety, going gluten free has had tremendous health benefits. If you are curious as to how gluten may be impacting your health. Try eliminating it completely from your diet for 2 weeks. Be very diligent. Then after two weeks, try eating gluten again. If you experience any unusual symptoms from a headache, fatigue, joint pain/stiffness, sinus congestion, bloating, gas or abdominal discomfort, then you are experiencing an inflammatory reaction to gluten. If this is you, then you want to be gluten free as much as possible. This will keep the overall inflammatory levels of your body lower and, along with a nutrient dense, whole foods diet, will keep you on your journey to optimum health and feeling and looking your best.
If you need help implementing a gluten free diet, please contact me for assistance.