Should You Go Gluten-Free?
This past September, gluten-free Cheerios appeared on grocery shelves across the country. In an attempt to boost cereal sales, General Mills rebranded one of their most popular products, and to great success. According to an article in Fortune magazine, sales rose 3.6%, a significant increase. Food manufacturers are not the only ones who have caught on to the latest food trend. The popularity of gluten-free products, cookbooks, and blogs have skyrocketed. The gluten-free cookbook “Bread-Free Bread” offers recipes for muffins, pastries, and breads that “look and act like bread.” Sales of gluten-free products are projected to increase 10.4% every year for the next five years (Markets and Markets). Many people transition to a gluten-free diet because they believe it is an important step toward leading a healthy lifestyle. What exactly is gluten, and is it really so deleterious to our health?
Gluten is a naturally-occurring protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten’s nutritional profile is hotly debated by scientists, doctors, and the public at large. Wheat Belly, written by cardiologist Dr. William Davis in 2014, attributes asthma, schizophrenia, and even multiple sclerosis to the consumption of gluten. In Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers (the title is somewhat of a spoiler), the neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter blames gluten for causing depression, obesity, ADHD, and dementia. Dr. Perlmutter even goes as far as to call gluten a “threat to humanity.” A paper written in 2014 by Dr. David Nash and Dr. Amy Salutzky criticizes Dr. Perlmutter’s work for disregarding the vast majority of empirical evidence, which fails to support his claims.
One argument against gluten is that our immune systems have not yet developed to tolerate wheat. The people who support this idea claim that humans used to subsist solely on what they could hunt or gather, and did not begin to eat bread until agriculture developed. However, the discovery of barley and millet seeds at Ohalo II, an archaeological site in Israel, provides evidence that people have consumed gluten for over 20,000 years.
In addition, it is certainly possible that our bodies have adapted to the consumption of wheat like they did to drinking milk. When people began drinking animal milk beyond infancy, the lactase enzyme that digests milk sugars adapted to remain during adulthood. (People who have lactose intolerance are unable to digest milk because their bodies do not produce enough of the lactase enzyme.) People began drinking animal milk around the same time they began consuming wheat, which shows that it is certainly possible for our bodies to have adapted to wheat over thousands of years.
Unlike the arguments above, which are not supported by research, there is still the matter of the increasing prevalence of Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which consumption of gluten damages the small intestine. Celiac disease affects only one out of every 100 people, yet it is four times more prevalent today than it was in 1950. However, people today are much more sensitive to allergens in general, so it is possible that the real problem is the immune system and its increased sensitivity, not gluten itself.
Assuming one does not have Celiac disease, dietitians generally agree that there is nothing wrong with consuming gluten. In fact, by eliminating gluten, people actually miss out on fiber and essential vitamins and minerals that are found in whole grains, like vitamin B12, folate, and phosphorus. In addition, simply eliminating gluten does not translate into automatic weight loss and improved health. Many products labeled “gluten-free” are actually quite unhealthy. For example, many candies and sodas are gluten-free, but they still contain added sugars that can lead to weight gain.
When choosing grains, the general recommendation is to pick the least-processed ones that exist in their most natural state. The current U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of grains consumed should be whole-grain, meaning that all parts of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm) are intact. Whole-grains contain more vitamins and minerals than grains that have been processed and stripped of the bran and germ. Sprouted grains are another healthy alternative, in which the grain is soaked in water until it sprouts, at which point it is ground into flour. The sprouting process produces enzymes that break down the protein and carbohydrates of the grain, making it easier to digest and increasing nutrient availability. Research has shown that sprouted grains contain more Vitamin C, fiber, folate, and essential amino acids than regular grains.
Before committing to a gluten-free lifestyle, one should explore healthy alternatives like whole and sprouted grains, which contain important vitamins and minerals and can be included as part of a healthy diet.