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Gluten-Free: Healthy or Hype?

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In the past month alone, your babysitter went wheat-free, your nephew was diagnosed Celiac, and your grocery store expanded to create a new gluten-free section.

What is all the fuss about? Is it something we all need to worry about? Or is gluten-free just a fad?

Gluten sensitivity is, in fact, on the rise. Celiac disease is at least 4 times more common today than it was 50 years ago (1), and that doesn't even include the increases in reported sensitivities and intolerances. Some reports show that 40% of Americans suffer from gluten-related health problems (2).

There is not one widely accepted reason for these skyrocketing gluten sensitivity rates, but there are several theories that may explain this rise:

 

  • The Hygiene Hypothesis. Some experts claim that our love affair with Purell has created an environment that is too clean, resulting in weaker immune systems that can't handle gluten (3).

 

  • Wheat processing. We've been changing the ways we use and eat wheat. Many of the foods we eat today didn't exist 50 years ago. So while wheat may not have caused a problem for our ancestors, it can be argued that these new 'foods' and processing methods are to blame for the rise of gluten sensitivity.

 

  • Wheat hybridization. Today's grains have been modified to contain much more gluten than ancient strains (4). Why? Because gluten gives breads & pastas a lighter, fluffier texture, and that's what consumers want.

 

  • Earlier exposure. Children are exposed to glutinous grains earlier than ever before (for example, cereal grains) (5).

 

  • Lack of bacteria. Despite the popularity of probiotics, this theory maintains that we still aren't supporting our beneficial flora enough. Studies show that oru intestinal microbes can mitigate reactions to gluten - but only if we have a healthy community of bacteria living in our gut (6). 

 

  • Lack of breastfeeding. Nowadays, we know that breastfeeding helps inoculate babies with good bacteria, provides protective antibodies, and helps babies develop immunity. One study found that babies who continued to breastfeed after their first exposure to gluten were more protected against gluten sensitivities (6). In general, nursing helps prevent allergies of all kinds. Unfortunately, people didn't always know about these benefits. Adults who were bottle-fed may be more susceptible to gluten allergy and intolerance.

 

  • Less variety in our diets. We're busy people. And sometimes a freezer pizza or 9-minute pasta is all we can bear to whip up after a long day at the office. Problem is, when we don't get variety in our diet, we are more susceptible to developing food sensitivities (7). And with all that bread, pasta & cake in our day-to-day diet, wheat is one of the foods we seem to be eating all the time.

 

  • Humans were never meant to eat grains. Some nutritionists argue that grains were never meant for human consumption. Looking back to our caveman ancestors and their paleolithic diet, these researchers contend that we were meant to eat meats and vegetables, and our health problems only arose after we switched to grain-based diet (8).


Whatever the reason behind the rising rates, it appears that gluten-free isn't going away anytime soon. And that may be for good reason. I've personally watched patients lose weight, banish heartburn, and manage autoimmune conditions just by eliminating gluten for 2-4 weeks. While not everyone's health will improve by going gluten-free, my practice has proven it to be a worthwhile experiment.

-Emily Wade Adams, author of Natal Nutrition

 

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