Gluten Intolerance: Is It Just a Fad or Is Today’s Wheat Really Toxic?
by Daisy Luther
If you shop in the health food section of the grocery store or read the foodie blogs, you may have noticed a trend over the past couple of years: gluten intolerance seems to be on the rise.
Kristen Michaelis explains this intolerance very clearly on the website Food Renegade:
First, let’s be clear about what gluten intolerance is. It isn’t a food allergy. It’s a physical condition in your gut. Basically, undigested gluten proteins (prevalent in wheat and other grains) hang out in your intestines and are treated by your body like a foreign invader, irritating your gut and flattening the microvilli along the small intestine wall.
Without those microvilli, you have considerably less surface area with which to absorb the nutrients from your food. This leads sufferers to experience symptoms of malabsorption, including chronic fatigue, neurological disorders, nutrient deficiencies, anemia, nausea, skin rashes, depression, and more.
If you remove gluten from the diet, the gut heals and the myriad of symptoms disappears.
You can’t throw a shoe in the air at Whole Foods or Trader Joes without it landing on someone looking at “gluten free” products. But the question many nutrition professionals are asking is this:
An article posted on Salon.com writes it off as a silly trend. A columnist suggests since there is no laboratory test for gluten intolerance, that the condition is “nebulous.” He scoffs:
Since there’s no way to “prove” a case of gluten-intolerance in the lab, the diagnostic criteria are rather lax. To qualify for the condition, you need only discover (with or without medical supervision) that going “G-free” makes you feel better—in body or mind or spirit.
I’m all for people eating what they want, but lately I’ve started to wonder how gluten intolerance might relate to a more general anxiety about food. The mere fact that someone who cuts out gluten feels better doesn’t mean that he has an autoimmune disease or a wheat allergy or some other medical condition. Any kind of restrictive diet can help alleviate gastrointestinal distress. If you’re paying more attention to what you eat, there’s a good chance your symptoms will lessen. That’s not because gluten or red meat or another food is damaging your small intestine; it’s because eating less makes it easier for your gut to recover. Then there’s the placebo effect of starting any treatment, which might well address some of the more abstract symptoms of gluten intolerance, like fatigue, mood swings, and depression.
An article on the Time Magazine website claims that people are wasting billions of dollars purchasing high-priced gluten-free foods. In 2012, the magazine ranked “gluten-free everything” as the #2 food trend in America, second only to posting pictures of everything you eat on Instagram and other social media networks. According to the magazine, the benefits of a gluten-free diet may all be in your head.
Avoiding certain ingredients goes in cycles: Back in the 70s, it was sugar. Then it was fat, then saturated fat. Then fat was in but carbs were out. Gluten is the pariah ingredient du jour, and there are a lot of healthy people shelling out big bucks for gluten-free food they probably don’t need.
“Most people must be doing this because they think they feel better, or they do feel better but they’re not diagnosed with gluten issues,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. As TIME Healthland pointed out:
People who have bad reactions to common gluten-containing foods — pasta, breads, baked goods and breakfast cereal — may actually be sensitive to something else… It’s also possible that some people develop gastrointestinal or other symptoms simply because they believe they’re food-sensitive.
So the question arises: Is going wheat-free merely the latest in a series of dietary trends? The most recent quick fix?
Not at all, according to Dr. William Davis, renowned cardiologist and author of the bestselling book Wheat Belly. (For more about Wheat Belly diet, click here.) The synopsis of his book states:
Every day, over 200 million Americans consume food products made of wheat. As a result, over 100 million of them experience some form of adverse health effect, ranging from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that preventive cardiologist William Davis calls “wheat bellies.” According to Davis, that excess fat has nothing to do with gluttony, sloth, or too much butter: It’s due to the whole grain wraps we eat for lunch.
After witnessing over 2,000 patients regain their health after giving up wheat, Davis reached the disturbing conclusion that wheat is the single largest contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic—and its elimination is key to dramatic weight loss and optimal health. In Wheat Belly, Davis exposes the harmful effects of what is actually a product of genetic tinkering and agribusiness being sold to the American public as “wheat”.
One in 133.org figures suggest upwards of three million Americans suffer from Celiac and another 18 million from non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. (It’s also worth noting that autism rates have skyrocketed in that same time as well.)
The number could quite possibly be much higher, considering symptoms do not present as glaringly in some people as they do in others, and due to the wide range of possible indications that can lead to misdiagnosis. While some have posited this increase is just an increase in people being tested for it, recent research suggests this is not the case.
A measly decade is not long enough for wide-scale genetic changes to take place, leaving the problem’s cause likely environmental. So what’s been going on in our environment?
Here are a few things to ponder:
In 2002, Monsanto provided its own safety evaluation to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that its genetically modified (GM) glyphosate-tolerant wheat is safe and as nutritious as conventional wheat. The FDA, in turn, accepted this conclusion, using the apparently logic that billion-dollar companies out to make big bucks on their own science experiments that claim their products are safe because they said so is somehow a perfectly legitimate way to determine true product safety. The United States and Columbia are the only two countries that allow Monsanto’s transgenic wheat.
Aside from that, it’s worth mentioning that in just the period between 1997 to 2002 (the years GM food was really beginning to crowd our grocery store shelves), food allergies began to skyrocket. The number of people hospitalized due to allergic food reactions rose 265 percent in that time. And food allergy figures continue to rise.
One doctor has also noted that the wheat we are eating today is actually a genetically modified creation of the ’60s/’70s, and it contains another protein called gliadin that he refers to as the “perfect chronic poison”. Why? It binds to the brain’s opiate receptors and stimulates our appetites, causing us to eat more of it.
See how those two proteins together could form a very dangerous combination?
The “new and improved wheat” is so genetically different that it is causing health problems. Many people who go gluten-free initially feel very ill, causing them to believe that the absence of wheat means they are missing a vital nutrient. Dr Davis says that is the opposite of the truth. He writes about the chemical issues that cause the withdrawal symptoms:
Forcing the conversion from a constant flow of carbs from “healthy whole grains” and sugars to increasing the enzymatic capacity to oxidize fats does indeed cause several weeks of low energy–but how do we explain the depression, nausea, headaches, lightheadedness, dehydration, emotional outbursts, intensive wheat cravings, bloating, constipation, even intensification of joint pain, effects that are not likely attributable to hypoglycemia or poor mobilization of energy? Delayed ramp-up of fatty acid oxidation is indeed part of the reason for the phenomena of wheat withdrawal, but does not explain all of it.
Most of these phenomena are caused by withdrawal from the gliadin-derived opiates in wheat, the 4- to 5-amino acid long polypeptides that increase appetite and cause addictive eating behaviors. You can actually trigger the syndrome abruptly in someone who is not wheat-free by giving them naloxone or naltrexone, opiate-blocking drugs. Because it is a form of opiate withdrawal, it cannot be entirely avoided with known strategies. In other words, an alcoholic (not an opiate, of course, but the situation is very similar) who wishes to rid her life of alcohol can only do so by stopping the flow of alcohol and suffering the withdrawal consequences–there’s no way around it. (source)
So basically, not only do people who consume wheat have to be concerned about the effects on their digestive systems, but the opioid effects of wheat consumption cause actual chemical addiction, adding to the list of reasons that many consider this to be a harmful ingredient that everyone should eliminate from their diets.
Gluten sensitivity can cause terrible issues in sufferers. One report links gluten to a reduction of blood flow to the brain, causing issues with mental clarity and the executive functions of the brain. Melton writes of other issues from undiagnosed gluten intolerance:
Eating wheat can manifest in myriad painful ways, so most people are misdiagnosed for years with other disorders and given medications that only help them mask symptoms without ever solving the real problem.
According to Gluten Free Network, these negative symptoms include:
- Weight loss or gain
- Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption (e.g. low iron levels)
- Gastrointestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
- Fat in stools (due to poor digestion)
- Aching joints
- Irritability and behavioural changes
- Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle and miscarriage
- Cramps, tingling and numbness
- Slow infant and child growth
- Dental health decline
It’s also easy to see how people with gluten issues get misdiagnosed with everything from depression and anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome and are likely just prescribed medicines that mask part of the symptoms, and all the while their eating habits are contributing to the slow destruction of their intestinal lining and their inability to absorb nutrients properly, thus ultimately making them sicker and sicker over time.
Learn more about some surprising symptoms HERE .
Check out this video to see an excerpt from a 1960 U.S. Department of Agriculture short film “Miracles from Agriculture” to see how gluten was “fixed”.
The answer to this quandary? Should you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon and encourage your kids to do the same? Or is this just a marketing ploy, the next fad diet?
It’s certainly not going to hurt you to try it out. If you or a family member suffers from one or more of the issues listed above, go gluten-free for a month. Track your results and only then can you make an informed decision whether this lifestyle will be beneficial for your family.
Don’t rely on the high priced gluten free products at the health food store. Many of these are highly processed and nutritionally bereft. Instead, change your eating habits. Instead of toast of breakfast, have oatmeal. Instead of a wrap at lunch, have a salad. At dinner, instead of pasta under that delicious sauce, try rice or quinoa. Instead of trying to eat exactly the same way, just minus the gluten, replace the wheat with totally different options. This is far healthier as well as more budget-friendly.
Check out this link to gluten free substitutes that you can easily make in your own kitchen: Using Your Food Pantry to Make 5 Alternative Flours.
Daisy Luther is a freelance writer and editor. Her website, The Organic Prepper, where this first appeared, offers information on healthy prepping, including premium nutritional choices, general wellness and non-tech solutions. You can follow Daisy on Facebook and Twitter, and you can email her at [email protected]