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Is Gluten Really That Bad For Me?

Written by Liz Abel, LDN, CNS, MS, MA. Posted in Family Health.

First, let’s get clear about what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. And yes, it’s found in the ancient grains of wheat, like kamut, farro, einkorn and spelt. What about oats? The simple answer is oats are naturally gluten free. However, it is common practice that the machinery used to produce rolled oats, as an example, is the same machinery that is used for making crackers (from wheat). This practice contributes to significant cross-contamination between wheat and oats,

thereby leaving traces of gluten in the rolled oats. That’s why if you are going to be “gluten free” you need to be certain your oats are “certified gluten free.” This just means that precautionary measures have been taken (such as using different equipment or manufacturing facilities) to prevent cross-contamination. And PS: buckwheat, despite its name, is not wheat.

Second, a small percentage of the population has Celiac Disease. This is an autoimmune condition, and it is imperative that these individuals do not consume gluten. Even cross-contamination can be a problem for these individuals. Many individuals with Celiac Disease even remove wheat products (yes, wheat protein is commonly found in hair products) from their bath and beauty routine. The initial screening for Celiac Disease is often completed through a blood test, and the gold standard for assessment is a biopsy, which is obviously more invasive. Additionally, prior to testing, the patient must have been consuming gluten for approximately four weeks. Most individuals do not have Celiac Disease, but many individuals do have non-Celiac Disease Gluten Sensitivity.

In America, there are a few things you should know about ground wheat products used to make breads, crackers, etc. Some of it may have less-than-beneficial effects. First, ground wheat is enriched with folic acid and iron, among other vitamins and minerals. This is legally required because the bran (where many nutrients live) has been removed during the processing stage. The addition of folic acid, as one example, has been linked to a grateful decrease in Spina Bifida. However, it would serve us more if we ate the grains in whole form, rather than this ground, enriched formula. Second, many manufacturers add potassium bromate to improve the elasticity in dough. Yet, this additive is believed to be toxic in lab animal assessments (1). Third, there are differences in the amount of gluten contained in different wheat commonly found in America. Wheat-sensitive individuals may do better with a lower gluten-containing wheat, versus higher. A lot of misinformation tells you to pay attention to the protein level of wheat to be able to infer the level of gluten contained, however, this is not always an accurate measure. (2) Fourth, many of our commercially available breads are easily accessible because of the invention of quick-rise yeast. Before the invention of quick-rise yeast, however, bakers had to rely on sourdough starters, which allowed for a much needed fermentation process to help make the bread more digestible.

In my clinical experience, here are the most common reasons I recommend to patients that they trial the elimination/reduction of wheat for a few weeks time: diarrhea and/or constipation (or alternating); stomach cramps; eczema; joint pain; and any autoimmune condition. I also see it linked to anxiety, stomach bloating, and brain fog. But sometimes wheat isn’t the only offender. With any digestive trouble and skin trouble, specifically, I also frequently recommend the elimination/reduction of dairy concurrently.

Here’s what to do if you are going to try eating gluten-free: Spend some time learning how to cook whole grains (millet, amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat), beans, lentils and more (much more) vegetables. Do not simply replace all of your current pasta, breads, crackers and cookies with “gluten-free” products. This causes other problems, like spiking your blood sugar. When you dine at a restaurant, they may ask if you have an allergy to wheat. Unless you are extremely sensitive to wheat, you can simply let them know your gluten-free request is a preference (not an allergy); this allows them to take different precautions in the kitchen, but without the worry of feeding someone with Celiac Disease.

Some of the best advice I can offer is to treat your body like a human experiment. In this case, don’t change everything at once. Just focus on the gluten component. If you decide to do a two-week trial of eliminating or reducing gluten, keep a symptom log so you can track bowel movements, headaches, joint pain and see if any relief is achieved. Some clients need longer than two weeks to assess any changes, so if you notice some mild (or great) improvement during the first two weeks, it might be worth continuing your experiment for a total of four weeks to assess any differences.
Typically, one doesn’t need to be gluten-free forever. An integrated approach to digestive support may facilitate an easy reintroduction of gluten. My advice, however, is always constant: do not eat the same thing repeatedly. Variety is important in life!

Fawell, J. & Walker, M. (2006). Approaches to determining regulatory values for carcinogens with particular reference to bromate. Toxicology 221: 2-3 (pp. 149-153). doi:
Ferrari, M.C., Cierici, M.T.P., & Chang, Y.K. (2014). A comparative study among methods used for wheat flour analysis and for measurements of gluten properties using the Wheat Gluten Quality Analyser (WGQA). Food Science Technology (Campinas) 34:2. (Epub June 10, 2014). 

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