The way that some folks talk about gluten, you’d think it was as bad as glyphosate, but that’s not necessarily the case. With folks sans celiac opting for a gluten-free diet left, right, and center, experts weigh in on whether or not this is a healthy choice.
For the one percent of the population who have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes the small intestine to react to the presence of gluten by attacking itself and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients, gluten is indeed a dangerous protein to consume.
Non-celiac gluten intolerances may not be as dangerous as celiac, but they can be uncomfortable, causing all manner of digestive and other health issues. These intolerances affect anywhere from 0.6 percent to over ten percent of the population, depending on who you ask. Some doctors even think that those who tolerate gluten are actually the anomaly; Dr. Steven Gundry, Founder of GundryMD and New York Times bestselling author of “The Plant Paradox,” notes that “a vast number” of people who do not have markers or genes for celiac are intolerant in some way to the protein.
It can be tough to know whether or not this applies to you, however; as Naturopathic Doctor Serena Goldstein explains, “It takes food about 24-72 hours to pass through our entire system, which is why if there’s someone who’s sensitive, they may not feel it right away.”
So What If You’re Not Gluten Intolerant?
A rapidly increasing number of people are switching to a gluten-free diet: according to a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of the population who ate gluten-free despite not having celiac disease more than tripled – and some medical professionals think that’s a bad idea, including the researchers behind the BMJ study that found that restricting gluten could have harmful health effects on people who don’t suffer from celiac disease.
But there’s more to these results than meet the eye. The researchers didn’t actually find that there were any health hazards to cutting gluten from your diet – what they found, rather, was that people weren’t replacing gluten-laden whole grains with healthy alternatives.
“We don’t need gluten to survive,” explains Dr. Amy Lee, Head of Nutrition for Nucific and Chief Medical Officer of a prestigious Southern California weight loss center. She notes that while whole grains are rich in B vitamins, iron, and fiber, you can easily get these nutrients from somewhere else.
“I don’t think it’s crucial for people to eat gluten-based whole grains,” she says. “You can certainly live without them. There are many alternative sources of fiber, not the least of which are nutrient-packed vegetables.”
The problem is that many who cut out gluten opt instead for overly processed gluten-free breads, pastas, and snacks. One Spanish study found that on average, those on gluten-free diets consumed significantly more calories and fat and less protein and fiber as their gluten-eating counterparts, an issue that Mark Hyman, MD, says is the fault of an overzealous food industry looking to capitalize on our tendency to “demonize” a food substance, whether it’s fat, carbs, or, in this most recent case, gluten.
“In a nutshell, this industry manipulates basic foods items and turns them into ‘Frankenfoods,’” says Hyman. “Don’t be fooled: Gluten-free junk food is still junk food loaded with artificial sugars, food coloring, added gums to help things stick together and additives to increase shelf life while decreasing yours.”
“The best way to follow a gluten-free diet is to avoid the gluten-free aisle of the grocery store at all costs,” says Gundry. “That’s because the non-gluten replacements are more troublesome than gluten they replace.”
Is All Gluten Created Equal?
There’s also the matter of grains that may not contain as much gluten as conventional wheat. Goldstein notes that if she advocates for a gluten-free diet, it’s due in part to the poor quality of gluten products in the United States.
“Gluten processed in the U.S. is not of optimal quality,” she says. “There are people who are celiac and can eat bowls of pasta back in their native country (e.g. someone I knew had no problem when returning to Norway and her grandmother made pasta from scratch).”
“While in theory we should be able to eat everything, health concerns and food quality tend to hinder that option,” she continues.
But conventional wheat is not our only option. Alternative wheats, such as Kernza, a more sustainable perennial superwheat created by the Land Institute, or kamut, an ancient Khorasan wheat, are lower in gluten and higher in protein than conventional, thus making them more filling and leading you to lower your gluten intake substantially. A 2014 Italian study even showed that people with IBS tolerated kamut better than modern wheat, a major vote of confidence, especially considering the fact that, according to Dr. William Davis, “IBS has become nearly synonymous with ‘non-celiac gluten intolerance’ (NCGI), i.e., celiac disease-like symptoms but without the accompanying small intestinal destructive changes.”
The moral of this story is that while there’s nothing nutritionally wrong with opting out of gluten (whether you’re intolerant to it or not), choosing quality whole foods to replace your gluten-laden treats is the best course of action.