When I was transitioning to a vegan diet, I also experimented with going gluten-free. At the time (2012), ditching gluten was the hottest way to lose weight, improve digestion, reduce inflammation, boost concentration, banish bloating, and slay dragons (just kidding). Although I never gave up gluten completely, I typically only consumed it when on the road or at a friend’s house. I rarely brought bread and traditional pastas into my home. After I became vegan, they just weren’t a part of my usual shopping list.
I’ve stayed fairly relaxed about gluten because I don’t have Celiac disease and the concept of gluten-intolerance has always seemed like a vague, far-off possibility. (Like, it may be a thing?—though I can’t feel a difference when I consume or don’t consume gluten…) But still, I kept hearing about how gluten is an inflammatory food, so I figured I’d consume it like wine—in moderation and for special occasions.
Like any big dietary movement, gluten-free is buttressed by an expansive industry, and it’s now no longer difficult to find gluten-free versions of your favorite foods. This is wonderful news for those who truly cannot consume gluten (individuals with Celiac and gluten allergies); for these individuals, gluten-free is no mere trend–it’s a health necessity. But this buzzy new market has some consequences for those of us looking to “just see” what it’s like to live sans wheat.
First, not all products labeled “gluten-free” are in fact healthy. Like sugary bars marked “low fat!” many processed gluten-free foods contain a lot of truly inflammatory ingredients, ranging from sugar to processed vegetable oils to metals. Yep—a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology found that arsenic and mercury can bioaccumulate in rice—the flour of which is a common wheat flour substitute. Researchers found that mercury and arsenic levels in the blood and urine of those on a gluten-free diet were significantly higher than those of people who ate gluten.
While brown rice is a staple in many plant-based diets (and a food I will forever adore), these findings suggest that including a variety of starches in your diet (when possible) may be the most sensible approach.
Second, the feeling that one has gluten-sensitivity may be just that—a feeling, albeit a powerful one. Peter Gibson, the man who led a 2011 study linking gluten to intolerances reflects, “The first study was small and I didn’t believe we had total clarity on all the variables that could trigger a reaction to gluten,” adding that the study seems to have been blown out of proportion by the media, spurning a worldwide dietary phenomenon.
In a follow-up study, Gibson’s team tested a group of people who self-identified as gluten-intolerant and found that “despite anecdotal symptoms, we could find no biomarkers [inflammatory or immune reactions] to a gluten intolerance when participants were tested.” Unfortunately, there are no reliable tests for food intolerances.
This doesn’t invalidate the very real symptoms the participants may have had, however. Nor does it mean that the benefits people have experienced after cutting gluten are imaginary. Many have given up wheat products and have experienced weight loss and increased energy. So what gives?
As far as symptoms of gluten-intolerance go, nutritionist Peter Cox suggests that “a problem with gluten could be psycho-emotional rather than physiological. We all have an emotional connection to what we eat so some symptoms can be psychosomatic.” In other words, if we believe that gluten is harmful and we eat happen to eat some, our feelings can actually translate into physical symptoms.
And the weight loss? That could be a product of a few things. First, giving up gluten may result in giving up high-calorie, blood sugar-spiking carby foods (think hamburger buns and those cookies in the office break room). This assumes that you’re not replacing those with the aforementioned processed gluten-free varieties. Second, nutritionist Gabriela Peacock explains that wheat, rather than gluten itself, contains short-chain carbs and sugars, which may cause more digestive distress than gluten. This goes to show that again, variety is key. Perhaps you consume gluten, but you vary wheat with barley and rye, for example.
So what does this mean for those of use who avoid gluten by choice (rather than out of medical necessity)? Fortunately, we don’t have to change our ways (though we may want to avoid the gluten-free sweets section of the grocery store and stick to whole foods). If gluten just isn’t your thing, that’s fine! The absence of evidence for gluten intolerance doesn’t mean we all have to go wheat crazy.
If you choose to consume gluten, make sure you’re getting it in whole-grain form. Whole grains (vs. refined grains) have been associated with healthy cholesterol levels, regular bowel movements, balanced intestinal acidity, increased healthy gut bacteria, and higher levels of memory T cells, which aid in adaptive immunity.
Have you given up gluten—or do you swear by all varieties of whole grain?
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