The Gluten-Free Diet (aka GFD)
A recent Gallup Poll found that 20-25% of Americans are actively pursuing a gluten-free diet (GFD).
Gluten is a general name for proteins found primarily in whole grains such as wheat, barley, and rye but can also be found in other foods such as rice, corn, potato, and beans. Humans have been consuming multiple grains containing gluten for thousands of years and numerous clinical investigations have shown this food group to support health. However, there is a severe immune reaction that can occur in genetically susceptible individuals when exposed to even small amounts of gluten.
This rare condition, known as celiac disease, is an inherited autoimmune disorder whereby the gluten protein stimulates the production of antibodies that attack and damage the lining of the small intestine. The typical acute symptoms of celiac disease are abdominal pain, bloating and flatulence (gas) and diarrhea. This aggregate of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms also occurs chronically in a larger number of people who are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This is a disabling functional condition, not a true pathological disease, that in the distant past was erroneously referred to as “nervous stomach”. Currently, IBS is the most common GI disorder seen in clinical practice and in the majority of these people, a definitive etiology (cause) is not known, although occasionally it can be attributed to food intolerance or sensitivity.
In the 1980’s, researchers reported the results of a clinical study that demonstrated marked improvement in GI symptoms when non-celiac participants with IBS consumed a GFD. The number of participants was small, but the findings lead to a new diagnostic category called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). This diagnosis has not been accepted universally by clinicians and is a controversial clinical condition but going gluten free gradually became a nation- wide obsession and increased in popularity globally.
People avoiding gluten not only reported improvement in GI symptoms but claimed improvement in headaches, insomnia, and fatigue, as well as general state of well-being. The media and Hollywood strongly touted gluten-free promoting it as a weight loss diet and a healthy diet for the general population. Chelsea Clinton even had a gluten-free wedding cake!
Gluten became a “Foodzilla” or “Frankenfood”.
After being confined to health food stores for years, gluten-free products became prominent on the shelves of grocery stores and common on the menus of restaurants. The GF diet craze has become extremely profitable for these food businesses because consumers equate GF food with healthy food and are willing to pay more.
Of concern is the fact that eliminating gluten means eliminating whole grains and forfeiting their known health promoting attributes including fiber and many important vitamins and micro-nutrients. Known health benefits of consuming whole grains include reducing the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, obesity and a number of other diseases. Also, restricting gluten tends to change the bacterial flora of the intestines, replacing good bacteria with harmful bacteria. This adversely impacts immunity and maintenance of a healthy bowel. Additionally, there have been recent clinical studies associating high grain diets with preventing dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. When dining remember the phrase “pass the grain to protect the brain”.
GFD’s not only eliminate healthy foods but can result in the increased consumption of potentially unhealthy commercially processed foods. Processed foods tend to be higher in fat, sugar and simple carbohydrates to compensate for texture and flavor lost as a result of removing gluten.
A gluten restricted diet can be acceptable if foods consumed are naturally gluten free, like fruits and vegetables.
Hopefully this information has convinced you that the number of people that are truly non-celiac gluten sensitive is probably very small and commercially processed foods labeled gluten free are not necessarily healthy. In fact, supermarket shelves are full of unhealthy junk foods that are thought to be healthy by consumers because of the gluten-free label. People who feel they benefit and feel better on a GFD are very possibly sensitive to the carbohydrates contained in the grains, not the protein gluten. We will discuss these problematic carbs in next week’s article.
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Dr. Tippett is the founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-836-8182. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com