Is Gluten Sensitivity Fact or Fiction?
In a world with increasingly more gluten-free products, you may wonder if grains are good, bad, or just trendy.
Nick Oddo grew up in a big Italian family eating a lot of bread and pasta. He also experienced some level of depression and mood swings for most of his life. But in the late 1990s, it got worse and he felt out of control. His dad, who was a baker in Italy, took his own life at 54 and his father before him at 35. He wanted to break the cycle.
Through the magic of synchronicity, Oddo says, a nutritionist suggested a diet that cut out gluten—a protein composite found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. After just a short time living gluten-free, he noticed a big difference in his moods. “Gluten was causing my depression!” he wrote in a blog. “I changed my diet and began to heal.”
Today, he has passed the milestone of living longer than his father, and his diet includes virtually no grains. Instead he opts for more fresh vegetables from his Westchester garden along with nuts, fish, meat, and the occasional gluten-free treat. He now coaches other people about the connection between food and mood.
The link between grains and depression is the subject of a new book by neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter called Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers. In it, Perlmutter argues that many neurological conditions are preventable with diet. “Although several factors play into the genesis and progression of brain disorders, to a large extent numerous neurological conditions often reflect the mistake of consuming too many carbs and not enough healthy fats,” he wrote.
The time is ripe to reconsider gluten and grains. Gluten-free products are everywhere. Time named the gluten-free movement #2 on its list of food trends for 2012. The global market for gluten-free products is expected to exceed $6 billion by 2018, according to a report issued by RnRMarketResearch. “Public perception that gluten-free foods are healthier than conventional products is the most important factor fueling gluten-free food sales,” the report says. “Other factors include ongoing improvement of gluten-free products and increasing retail availability.”
The company says major demand for gluten-free products are expected to increase from countries like the U.K., Italy, Spain, Brazil, and India.
In August 2013, the U.S. government enacted new standards for gluten-free claims on food labels. This is great news for the 3 million Americans with celiac disease, a condition where eating gluten damages the lining of the small intestines and leads to difficulty digesting food and nutrients. The only treatment available to those with celiac disease is to avoid gluten at all costs.
In addition to those with celiac disease, there’s another market for this trend. Research estimates that 18 million Americans are gluten sensitive, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
These people experience symptoms similar to those with celiac but they lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage. Research "suggests that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is an innate immune response, as opposed to an adaptive immune response (such as autoimmune) or allergic reaction," according to the organization. So while gluten sensitive people may not need go completely gluten free, they certainly experience enough symptoms like bloating, foggy thinking, headaches, or diarrhea, to benefit from lightening their gluten load.
The important question to answer is which category do you fall in? Grain free, gluten free, or gluten light? Many experts say unless you are celiac, there's no reason to avoid gluten and grains. But others encourage listening to your body and experimenting with what works best for you.
Leslie Cerier, author of Gluten Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook, says that the gluten-free fad has brought attention to more ancient grains which are naturally gluten-free. She says these grains are full of nutrients and more supportive of small, organic, sustainable farmers around the world.
Cerier grew up eating white breads and refined foods and felt the health impacts in her own body. She discovered teff, an ancient grain used in traditional Ethiopian cooking, in 1989 at a macrobiotic food fair. She says it not only tasted amazing, but also it was a great source of iron, something she was looking to boost in her diet at the time.
“I thought it was the next supergrain for sure,” she said. It hasn’t caught on in the same was as other gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, but it is more available these days than it was 20 years ago.
Cerier began searching for more ancient, whole grains to expand her repertoire and culinary palette. Her 10 favorite gluten-free grains can be found here. These grains give a broader range of nutrition and variety of flavors than wheat. In contrast, “modern day wheat gives greater quantity and yield, but its not as nutritious,” she says.
Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly, says the wheat we eat today is much different than what our grandparents ate.
"First of all, it ain’t wheat," he writes on his blog. "It’s the product of 40 years of genetics research aimed at increasing yield-per-acre. The result is a genetically unique plant that stands two feet tall, not the four-and-a-half foot tall 'amber waves of grain' we all remember. The genetic distance modern wheat has drifted exceeds the difference between chimpanzees and humans."
Cerier advises reading labels carefully because many gluten-free products on the market today are made with refined gluten-free flours, sugars, and chemicals—"junk" food in their own right. In her cooking classes, many people want to make gluten-free versions of their favorite junk foods and while this approach might offer a small upgrade, she encourages her students to move away from conventional foods and make healthier choices beyond gluten-free.
“Eat organic and sustainably raised foods that support your immune system,” Cerier says.
Whether you choose to go with or against the grain is up to you. As the market for gluten-free products and ancient grains continues to expand, so can your awareness, experiments, and preferences.