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Lunchtime at my elementary school, like most American public schools in the 80s, was unremarkable save for one particular student.
“Joe” was unusual in that he couldn’t eat anything containing wheat. That meant no bread, no crackers, and no cake. In addition to this, we were told not to share any food with him. Any amount of wheat, no matter how small, could make him very sick.
My mother, who volunteered at the school, was baffled by Joe’s mysterious ailment. While I didn’t know the name of it at the time, Joe had Celiac Disease, an autoimmmune disorder where eating gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Even though an estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide suffer from it, few people back then had ever heard of it.
“That poor child,” Mother muttered. “What does he eat?”
Fast forward 30 years later, and Joe has more food choices then he ever dreamed about as a child. Walk into any grocery store and there are gluten-free breads, pastas, and cakes. The shampoo I use on my children even has a label on it declaring it is gluten-free.
While these products are a godsend for those with Celiac Disease, an overwhelming number of people who don’t have it are opting to go gluten-free.
“Oh, I am off gluten!” is something I hear time and again especially from those in the mind/body community.
When asked, nearly all of them say they don’t actually have Celiac Disease but instead have a suspected gluten-sensitivity which more often than not has been self-diagnosed after reading an article or book or Googling certain symptoms.
Those who have chosen to cut out gluten often declare that they have never felt better.
“I should have done it years ago!” or “I feel that a fog has lifted!” are common refrains.
So, is there anything to this? Other than those who have celiac disease, could the majority of the symptoms that indicate sensitivity be about something else entirely?
Turns out the answer could be yes.
In a recent New York Times editorial, Moises Velasquez-Manoff argues that gluten may not be the enemy that so many claim it is.
Velsaquez-Manoff takes to task the myth that humans have not eaten wheat long enough to adapt to it. (Advocates of this point out that we have only begun cultivating wheat about 11,000 years ago whereas for millions of years before that, humans were primarily hunter-gatherers.) Experts say not only is that more than enough time to adapt to it, but also contrary to popular myth, the wheat being cultivated today does not have more gluten in it then it had in the past.
An analyst of modern day wheat and that grown a century ago shows the gluten levels are the same.
So, what does all that mean for us or those convinced that gluten-free is best for them?
Rather—as the above-cited editorial points out—the problem may that some individuals have an overly sensitive immune system prone to inflammation thanks to the standard American diet which is high in sugar.
Cutting out gluten may have a placebo effect and/or made lead some to be more aware of their food choices which can lead to a better overall feeling.
However, least anyone think that gluten-free equals healthier they would be mistaken.
In an article for Women’s Health, researcher Caroline Dunn, M.S., R.D., notes that “[s]ome of the main things you lose when you take gluten out of a recipe are texture, chewiness, and palatability.” One of the easy ways to replace those things is to add fats and sugars. Therefore, these “may be present in even higher amounts than in the original item with gluten.”
In other words when it comes to gluten, going without may not be the best option, especially if there is no medical reason to abstain from it.
If we suspect we have a Celiac Disease, gluten sensitivity, an overly sensitive immune system, or any other suspected medical condition, it is best to seek out a qualified medical professional. For those of us who don’t, then it’s probably fine to have our gluten-filled cake and eat it, too–-it may even be healthier than the alternative.
Bonus video: Find out what expert Dr. John Douillard has to say about the gluten free debate.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Memphis CVB at Flickr