What is the hype about gluten? There have been many debates about the dangers of gluten in the diet. The gluten-free diet has been discussed by everyone from professional athletes like tennis champion Novak Djokovic to celebrities like Miley Cyrus. Some say it isn’t harmful and is hype while others say it’s very dangerous and everyone should avoid it like the plague.
What is gluten, exactly? Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Meanwhile, it is not found in grains like rice or corn.
Why does the hype matter? See both sides of the argument around gluten’s effect on the body to figure out whether gluten-free is a health fad, or actually worth the attention for conscious nutrition.
Gluten: Help or Hindrance in achieving your health & fitness goals?
We explore in an overview of both sides of the gluten argument.
1. There is no evidence gluten is the culprit.
Common Argument: There is no evidence against gluten grains being a cause of health problems for the majority of the population. If the individual does not have celiac disease as indicated by lab tests, gluten should not present a problem in the diet.
Counter-argument: There is evidence of gluten causing several seemingly unrelated health problems, and here is how it works. Some of the most common are:
- Leaky gut and low nutrient absorption. Leaky gut syndrome leads to poor absorption of nutrients through the intestinal wall. This could lead to nutrient deficiencies, not due to low nutrient intake, but low nutrient uptake.
- Autoimmune disorders. Along with leaky gut syndrome and food allergies, gluten triggers an orchestra of autoimmune disorders or conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks the body instead of infections and invaders. Some conditions with autoimmune roots include osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia. Even Alzheimer’s has been linked – myelin sheath, or the fatty tissue coating that protects the brain’s neurons, begin to disintegrate as a result of an autoimmune response in the brain. Lo and behold, gluten-free diets have been found to reverse the process in patients.
- Other chronic conditions and health problems. Infertility, hypothyroidism, type 1 diabetes, autism, and depression are only a few among many health conditions that arise from leaky gut and an autoimmune response.
Conclusion: While some individuals, like celiac patients, are more sensitive to gluten than most, it may not be completely safe to eat, given the above chronic conditions that could arise as a result of gluten consumption.
2. If gluten is so dangerous, how did humans manage to eat grains for so many generations?
Common Argument: Humans have been cultivating and eating gluten grains for 10,000 years. Bread has played such an important role in human culture that it is known as the “staff of life” in The Bible. With consumption so common since the advent of agriculture, it’s unlikely that gluten is unhealthy for humans.
- Evolution selects against diseases that adversely affect reproductive success. Chronic conditions may not appear until after the prime age of human reproductive health, so the evolutionary process of natural selection applies less selective pressure against conditions that slowly decrease health status.
- Given the long lifespans of humans, genetic adaptation from natural selection occurs at a counterintuitively slow rate. Even if evolution were to select against individuals sensitive to gluten, it would take much longer than 10,000 years for a genetic adaptation to appear in the population, some estimates as long as 1 million years! A common counterargument to this point is the case of Europeans exhibiting lactose tolerance in a short time period since the domestication of dairy animals. However, keep in mind all humans are born with the genetic loci for lactose digestion, which is activated during infanthood for the consumption of the mother’s milk, but later deactivated into adulthood. The time required for changing the expression of an existing gene is much shorter than that required for a combination of genetic mutations to cause noticeable, phenotypic changes, like an improved ability to digest gluten.
Conclusion: Although gluten is dangerous to our long term health and causes many chronic conditions, the forces of natural selection in human evolution has not improved human’s impaired ability to consume foods with gluten because gluten tends not to affect human reproductive health in the short term.
Additionally, even if gluten digestion abilities were to be improved through evolution and natural selection, the process would take so long, we wouldn’t expect to see a genetic adaptation for improved gluten digestion until the year 102,000, at the soonest.
3. If you avoid gluten, where would you get all those nutrients?
Common Argument: The nutrients found in gluten grains would be missed if they were eliminated from the diet. According to nutrition labels like this one for a popular cereal brand, gluten grains provide a generous portion of USDA’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of nutrients.
- The nutrients provided by fruits and vegetables are much higher than in gluten grains. As the following diagram (in a presentation by biochemist Matt Lalonde) indicates, the Vitamin C provided in a 418-calorie portion of whole grains is 1.53mg while it is 93.6mg in the same amount of vegetables and 221.3mg in fruit. In other words, you can get 200 times the Vitamin C in fruit in the same caloric amount of gluten grains.
Nutrient Density of Whole Grains vs. Fruits and Vegetables
- Nutrients are better absorbed from other foods. Despite the nutrient density of gluten grains, the body is limited in its ability to intake the nutrients post-digestion. This is because grains contain phytic acid, mostly in the bran, or outer layer. When consumed, phytic acid inhibits absorption of essential minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium by binding to them in the digestive tract.
Conclusion: Far from missing out on essential nutrients when gluten grains are eliminated from the diet, the same vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables are not only found in higher quantities, but also better absorbed into the body than through whole grain consumption.
How WellnessFX Can Help
Reduced gluten in the diet often positively affects the following biomarkers:
- blood glucose (more stable blood sugar)
- hbA1C (biomarker for diabetes risk)
- hs-CRP (biomarker for inflammation, and heart disease risk)
- electrolytes (essential nutrients, e.g. calcium, potassium, sodium)
- lipids (e.g. triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol)
Liked this article? Read more about gluten, the pros and cons of popular diets like paleo, low-carb, and DASH, and other health myths about adrenal fatigue and sauerkraut.
Want to read on the regular? Subscribe to the WellnessFX newsletter to receive simple tips and educational articles on health.
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.