Gluten free products are becoming the new “fat free” as people are discovering that they feel better without gluten in their diets. For those who don’t know, gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Most people relate gluten intolerance to only those who have Celiac disease. However, a growing number of people are also finding that they have a gluten sensitivity, distinct from the symptoms related to Celiac disease, but also disruptive and potentially behind a number of health problems that develop down the road. While Celiac disease was once thought to be rare, effecting only 1% of the population, recent studies have shown that as many as 1 in 133 adults have Celiac disease, with a much higher number reporting gluten sensitivity (some believing 1 in 20 adults) making it a growing epidemic.
Unlike gluten sensitivity, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine due to its inability to digest even the smallest amount of gluten. This not only produces a host of initial symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea and cramping, it can also lead to malnutrition due to the inability of the intestines to absorb the nutrients from food. Celiac disease can also cause premature intestinal cell death and oxidation, which can result in what’s called a “leaky gut” allowing toxins to enter into the bloodstream. Other commonly reported health problems associated with gluten intolerance include osteoporosis, IBS, anemia, cancer and other types of autoimmune disorders. However, a review done by the New England Journal of Medicine reported over 55 health conditions and diseases that can be caused by eating gluten, some of which include psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Gluten sensitivity, a much less understood condition, has been reported to include symptoms such as IBS-like stomach problems, bloating, headaches, fatigue, depression and others. Many just report feeling better when they remove gluten from their diet, the reason for which cannot be identified medically or agreed upon by experts. Loren Cordain, PhD and the author of The Paleo Diet, has gone so far as to create a complete diet system based on the Paleolithic period over 10,000 years ago, consisting of the foods we were biologically designed to eat such as lean meats, fish, poultry, fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds. He suggests avoiding dairy, refined and processed foods, sugar, as well as eliminating all grains. Due to the high glycemic index of most wheat containing grains (a serving of whole wheat bread is said to have a higher index then table sugar), you’ll be able to normalize your insulin levels by avoiding them. This will in turn make you less prone to high blood sugar related diseases as well as weight problems. Additionally, it is said that the opioid peptides present in wheat can influence neurotransmitters in the brain and may contribute to food and wheat addiction.
Why are problems with gluten on the uprise? One such explanation is that the wheat we are consuming now is different from that of our ancestors. According to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, says that the wheat of today is the crop of years of genetic hybridization, and is actually a mixture of a grain called einkorn and wild grasses. He feels that it is this modern day wheat that is behind the numerous health problems and diseases associated with wheat consumption.
Even if you don’t have a known gluten intolerance or sensitivity, it may be wise to try a gluten free diet for a period of time if you are having any of the symptoms described above. Remember that many processed foods contain hidden gluten such as pre-made soups, soy sauce, cold cuts, energy bars, malts (made from barley), stuffing, dressings, sauces, and even some nutritional supplements to name a few. Other names for wheat include einkorn, durum, faro, graham, kamut, semolina, spelt and triticale. Seitan, which is pure wheat gluten and used as a meat substitute in vegan cooking, should be avoided at all costs. However, some great gluten free grains that can be consumed as part of a balanced diet include buckwheat, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and rice.
 Wsj.com (2011, March 15). Clues to gluten sensitivity. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704893604576200393522456636.html
 Drhyman.com (2011, March 17). Gluten: what you don't know might kill you. Retrieved from http://drhyman.com/blog/conditions/gluten-what-you-dont-know-might-kill-you/
 Cordain, L. (2010). The paleo diet: Lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. (Revised ed.). New Jersey: Wiley.
 Nutramed.com (No date). Trigger foods and opioids. Retrieved from http://www.nutramed.com/eatingdisorders/addictivefoods.htm
 Davis, W. (2011). Wheat belly: Lose the wheat, lose the weight, and find your path back to health. New York: Rodale Books.
 Celiac Disease Foundation (www.celiac.org)