There is currently a lot of confusion around gluten. Due to increasing availability of gluten-free products as well as coverage in the media, more and more people are choosing to follow a "gluten-free" diet. What amazes (and worries) me is that some folks adopt this diet without even knowing what gluten is!
What is gluten?
Gluten is the general name for the proteins, gliadin and glutenin, found in the cereal grains wheat, rye, barley and triticale. The gluten protein makes bread dough elastic enough to rise, giving it that light and fluffy texture (read more here).
Who should avoid gluten?
People who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects approximately 1 in 100 people, must avoid gluten because ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Left untreated, celiac disease can cause serious health problems such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies (such as anemia), early onset osteoporosis, infertility, and gastrointestinal cancers. Read more about celiac disease at The Celiac Disease Foundation. Until new treatments are approved (e.g. Lazarotide acetate), people diagnosed with celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet to remain healthy.
What about the other 99%?
Although many people claim to feel better when they follow a gluten-free diet, the scientific community is still conflicted as to whether individuals without celiac disease might benefit from a gluten free diet.
Some doctors, like Dr. William Davis, believe that gluten is toxic for humankind and everyone should follow a gluten-free diet. There is some evidence to support this. For example, it is true that no one is able to completely digest gluten. It is also true that fragments of undigested gluten peptides can make the intestines leak, attract immune cells into the intestine, and cause inflammation in the gut.
However, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, the leading expert in gluten-related disorders, "we engage daily in a war with many dangerous bacteria but rarely do we lose this battle, which is an event that leads to infection. We are also engaged in daily confrontation with gluten, but only a minority of us will lose this battle. These are the genetically susceptible individuals who will develop gluten-related disorders."
Who are these genetically susceptible individuals?
In addition to celiac disease, there exist spectrum of non-celiac, gluten-related disorders, including well-known wheat allergy (think hives and difficulty breathing) and the more recently accepted non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) - which is a real condition!
How do I know if I have gluten sensitivity?
While there are several diagnostic tests for celiac disease -- including elevated levels of tissue transglutaminase (tTG), the presence of genetic markers HLA-DQ2 or -DQ8 and, of course, the "gold standard" intestinal biopsy -- a biomarker for gluten sensitivity has not yet been found. However, researchers at the Center for Celiac Research are working hard to identify one! I am excited for this! Once a biological marker is discovered, we will be able to measure levels in the body, making it much easier to figure out whether or not insidious symptoms like gas, bloating, muscle aches and brain fog are being caused by gluten!
What the heck is a FODMAP?
The tricky thing is that sometimes gastrointestinal (GI) distress is caused by the ingestion of FODMAPs. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Di-saccharides, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols. These sugars, when poorly absorbed, draw water into the intestines (diarrhea) and feed colonic bacteria (resulting in gas and bloating). While glutenous foods are a type of FODMAP (i.e. they contain oligo-saccharides), there exist many other foods that may be contributing to GI discomfort if you are sensitive to FODMAPs. This is a new area of research, but I do my best to explain it here (link coming soon!).
Which condition do I have?
The best way to determine if a gluten-free diet is appropriate for you is to see your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). Before you change your diet, it is imperative to get tested to rule out celiac disease. Once you stop eating gluten, your body no longer produces the biomarkers (i.e. tTG, villous atrophy) needed to diagnose the disease. If your doctor is not up-to-date on the latest gluten-related research, recommend that he or she read the book Gluten Freedom by Dr. Alessio Fasano and/or the book released by The Mayo Clinic this past November called Mayo Clinic Going Gluten Free, which provides a checklist* for diagnosing non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
(*Checklist available in this New York Times article)
My own beliefs align more closely with those of Dr. Fasano, that only genetically susceptible individuals need to follow a gluten-free diet. Instead of silver bullets and one-size-fits-all approaches, it is my opinion that practicing personalized medicine - which considered genetics (fixed), microbiomics (modifiable) and environmental factors (culture) - is the best way to help clients achieve health.