The necessity of grains within the diet has recently become a topic of much controversy. Many people - myself included - now recognise Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity as a problem independent of Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy. Because of this, more people are going gluten free – and many are experiencing benefits beyond what they ever thought possible.
However, many in the nutrition and medical sphere still insist that going gluten free without a diagnosis of Celiac Disease is unnecessary at best, and fundamentally unhealthy at worst.
So, what’s really going on here? In this blog, we'll look at whether people who are giving up the gluten without a diagnosis of Celiac, are doing so needlessly or even potentially hazardously? Are the benefits they are experiencing all in their heads? And what about all of those gluten free products that are often three times the price of their gluten containing counterparts… are they worth the spend?
What is it about gluten that's causing so much fuss?
For many people, grains - especially gluten-containing grains - can cause problems affecting everything from digestion, mood, skin disorders like rashes and eczema, to joint pain, weight gain, migraines and thyroid disorders.
"...Grains - especially gluten-containing grains - can cause problems affecting everything from digestion, mood, skin disorders like rashes and eczema, to joint pain, weight gain, migraines and thyroid disorders."
At our BePure Clinics, I am yet to see a person with a thyroid disorder whose symptoms have not drastically improved on a gluten free diet.
"I am yet to see a person with a thyroid disorder whose symptoms have not drastically improved on a gluten free diet."
For an extensive list of gluten-related symptoms, check out this list. Interestingly, you’ll see that many of these symptoms do not relate to digestion! By removing gluten containing grains from your diet, you're not removing an 'entire food group' as common criticism may suggest, but simply a part of the larger grouping of carbohydrates.
You can clearly see this in the diagram below.
By reducing or completely eliminating gluten from our diet there are still plenty of carbohydrates to choose from – many of which are far more nutrient-dense than gluten-based products. Things like starchy vegetables, legumes, fruit and soaked whole grains are all carbohydrates that do not contain gluten.
I talk more about carbohydrates, gluten and gluten-free alternatives in the video below, 'Why all carbs are not equal.'
Getting to the grain of the matter
The problems associated with grains begin with the fact that grains are the seeds of grasses.
Some plants reproduce by being consumed by a predator - think of a bird eating a berry with the seeds then being excreted by the bird. In this case, the plant is genetically designed to remain intact inside the predator's digestive system so that it can regrow where it is deposited. This is how grains have evolved to reproduce.
"Some plants are genetically designed to remain intact inside the predator's digestive system so that it can regrow where it is deposited."
As a result, grains have evolved several chemical mechanisms designed to prevent them from being eaten. Some people can cope with these chemicals with no evidence of trouble, while others can't. For most people, there's no real way of knowing which category they fit into without a period of testing their sensitivity. This means going gluten free for a period of time.
We do not recommend eliminating all grains, but it is important to realise that these anti-nutrients do affect digestion. This is why we suggest soaking grains first to alleviate any potential symptoms.
Chemical mechanisms designed to prevent grains from being digested:
These are found in many foods, but in the greatest quantities in grains and legumes. They block the absorption of positively-charged minerals, such as iron, zinc, and magnesium.
New Zealand’s government recommends that we consume 6-11 servings of carbohydrates a day, with the bulk coming from whole grains. The phytate content of one bagel, or two slices of wholegrain bread, is enough to block iron absorption by up to 50%.
"New Zealand’s government recommends that we consume 6-11 servings of carbohydrates a day, with the bulk coming from whole grains."
Iron deficient anaemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s high bread consumption could be part of the reason why.
For instance, if you’re not a vegetarian, you eat red meat, and you haven’t experienced any heavy bleeding, it could be the grains in your diet preventing the absorption of these precious minerals.
Lectins are a naturally-occurring pesticide, and are found primarily in grains but especially wheat and legumes. They are sticky molecules and can bind with the lining of the gut – especially the microvilli which line the small intestine and are responsible for a condition called leaky gut which leads to nutrient malabsorption.
3. Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA)
This is a form of lectin, and can have powerful effects on the body. It is found in greatest quantities in whole wheat and can cause damage to the majority of the tissues in your body especially thyroid, and the production of serotonin your happy hormone. The key problem with AGA is that it can cause these effects WITHOUT requiring genetic susceptibility to gluten i.e coeliac disease. It stimulates pro-inflammatory chemical messengers, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier. It can also interfere with gene expression and hormonal functioning. It is because of this that I recommend most people should try going gluten free for a period of 4-6 weeks to see if you experience a reduction in these symptoms.
Gluten isn’t just a buzzword or scapegoat for the newest diet craze. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and is what gives bread its stretch. Its consumption stimulates the production of a protein called zonulin in everyone who eats it. Zonulin is currently the only known regulator of the tight junctions between the cell walls of the digestive tract. The wall of the digestive tract is meant to serve as a barrier between us, and the outside world. However, zonulin can loosen these tight junctions, allowing undigested food particles and other inflammatory particles to pass into the bloodstream. Again this is known as leaky gut syndrome.
If you are susceptible to zonulin, this can lead to an immune response that can contribute to a whole host of autoimmune conditions including Celiac Disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Graves Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Fibromyalgia, as well as all sorts of neurological disorders and skin conditions including eczema.
Currently, the tests available for Celiac Disease are very unreliable and test only a fraction of inflammatory markers to a fraction of the proteins found in wheat.
If you’re reacting to a protein that isn’t tested for, your intolerance will be missed. The gold standard for diagnosing intolerance is to perform an elimination diet, which involves the removal of all gluten-containing grains for a period of at least 30 days, before reintroducing gluten to see how your body reacts.
So what about all those gluten free products? Are they healthier?
More often than not, no. They’re still highly refined and processed foods that send blood sugars sky-high, without providing any real nutrients or fibre.
They’re best left on the shelves, and your money spent on nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates such as potatoes, kumara, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots, parsnip, and turnip.
A common critique of a gluten free diet is that it contains foods that are even more unhealthy than the original versions. We believe in eating foods that are naturally gluten free, and you’ll be well on your way to building a nutrient dense diet.
If you have any questions that were not covered in this blog post or would like more information on our BePure programme please get in touch. You can give us a call 0800 52 54 52 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.