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Should You Go Gluten-Free?

February 6, 2013

Gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free cookies… you need only to take a stroll through your local supermarket to see that the gluten-free diet has gone mainstream.

So what’s the big deal with this much-maligned protein? Should you be eating gluten-free? According to recent New York Times article “Gluten-Free Whether You Need It or Not,” the answer is: maybe.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat and related grain species such as barley, rye, and spelt. It gives dough its characteristic elasticity and contributes to the pleasing chewy texture of many baked goods.

Yet gluten has also been associated with a multitude of health problems. Around 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, a serious auto-immune disorder that causes a severe inflammatory reaction any time gluten is consumed. The only known treatment for celiac disease is a 100% gluten-free diet.

Though celiacs are in the minority, a growing number of people suffer from what experts call “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” While no diagnosable illness is present, these people simply feel a lot better when they eat a gluten-free diet. Gluten sensitivity can trigger a wide variety of symptoms – nausea, abdominal cramps, bloating, eczema, hives, and asthma are just a few. Those who are gluten-sensitive report that they have smoother digestion, clearer skin, and less achy joints when they eat gluten-free, and these problems re-appear as soon as they incorporate gluten-containing grains back into their diet.

What accounts for this growing gluten intolerance? Though scientists are unsure, many speculate that humans are maladapted to consume gluten in the quantities that we do today. Wheat entered the human diet only about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture.

“For the previous 250,000 years, man had evolved without having this very strange protein in his gut,” said Dr. Stefano Guandalini, director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center. “And as a result, this is a really strange, different protein which the human intestine cannot fully digest.”

And according to Dr. Frank Lipman, featured speaker at Integrative Nutrition’s upcoming alumni conference, the modern wheat we eat today is very different from what our great-grandparents ate. Today’s industrialized wheat has been bred to have much higher gluten content than it once did, and until the nineteenth century, wheat was usually mixed with other grains, beans, and nuts and was never refined into white flour.

But before you throw out all the wheat products in your home, be warned that some scientists are calling this gluten-free movement a fad. Many people digest gluten just fine, and it’s possible that some people benefit from going gluten-free simply because they’re making the extra effort to eat more healthily in general.

So should you go gluten-free? That depends. Talk to your doctor, give it a try, and see how you feel. You may notice no difference, or you may feel fantastic. That’s the essence of bio-individuality: there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, and getting to know your own body is essential to staying healthy and feeling your best.

If going gluten-free works for you, then check out 55 Ways to Enjoy Your Gluten Free Diet for recipes, restaurants, books, products, and more.

Have you ever gone gluten-free? How did it make you feel?