Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 Mar

A Tale of Two Gluten Studies

“It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

A couple recent gluten studies made me think of Dickens’ opening lines from “A Tale of Two Cities,” which describe the concurrence of contradictory states of being and consciousness in 18th century Western Europe. That’s people for ya. We can be miserable and happy at the same time. We can believe something despite evidence to the contrary staring us in the face. You’ll see it in online arguments, especially regarding subjects whose research luminaries publish in journals that offer online access to study abstracts for us plebs. That’s why comment board arguments between two opposing camps touting completely contradictory information stretch endlessly – because they can always trot out URL after URL of an abstract that appears to support their point. For every study, there’s a counter study.

Back to gluten. Two studies, one negative and one positive. The “negative,” a double blind, placebo-controlled RCT, found that gluten caused symptoms of gastrointestinal distress in certified non-celiacs with irritable bowel syndrome. The “positive” found that putting people on a gluten-free diet lowered levels of beneficial gut flora, potentially impairing immune function. Study, counter study. What can you do but throw up your hands, sigh, and resign yourself to never knowing the real truth?

You can look a bit closer. It’s reasonable to assume that the gluten RCT, being randomized and controlled and all, offers valuable information. Both groups had IBS and were eating gluten-free diets, except for the experimental group’s two slices of actual wheat bread and muffin each day (gluten included); the control group got placebo baked goods. 68% of the gluten group reported no improvements in IBS symptoms, while just 40% of the gluten-free group reported none. Put another way, 60% of the truly gluten-free felt better, while just 32% of the faux gluten-free felt better. In the gluten group, pain, bloating, and tiredness increased, stool consistency satisfaction decreased, and general negative symptoms got worse and more pronounced.

The gut flora study doesn’t even address gluten itself when you look closer. It’s addressing the reduction in dietary polysaccharides when following a gluten-free diet. Beneficial gut flora had fewer polysaccharides to feed on with whole wheat out of the diet.

You gotta wonder what exactly these gluten-free diets consisted of. I don’t know about the gluten-free folks you know, but the ones I come across who identify specifically as gluten-free tend to eat a lot of gluten-free treats. Flourless cakes, rice crackers, gluten-free brownies, weird gluten-free pizzas made with bean/rice/corn flour. They’re gravitating toward the boxed snacks and treats and breads so long as the “GF” label graces the box. They’re chowing down on ultra-processed, refined carbohydrates, with rice products dominating. There’s not much for the gut flora to work with there.

Check it out: “This study included 10 healthy subjects (30.3 years-old), who were following a GFD over one month by replacing the gluten-containing foods they usually ate with certified gluten-free foods (with no more than 20 parts per million of gluten).” So, yeah, they replaced gluten foods with “certified gluten-free foods,” which means crap-in-a-box and rice flour brownies. Meat and veggies may not contain gluten, but they aren’t “certified gluten-free.” They don’t get the nifty label. Gluten doesn’t have a wondrous effect on human gut flora. It’s not a magic protein. It’s the food that most people use (and, indeed, become obsessed with) to replace gluten-containing foods doing the damage. Poorly constructed gluten-free diets might negatively affect gut flora and immune function, but the Primal way of eating is not a poorly constructed gluten-free diet.

Although the authors were interested in understanding and overcoming potential downsides of typical gluten-free diets (they suggest dietary counseling, probiotics, and increased polysaccharide intake), this is the type of study that will get thrown around haphazardly in an argument against gluten avoidance in the general population. “See? Gluten-free diets reduce immune function and kill good gut flora!” accompanied by a fancy embedded link. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s what we’re up against. Be prepared.

See? When you look more closely, some of those contradictory studies start looking complementary. It’s good to understand why, not for online battles (necessarily) but for your own enrichment.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Heh, I used to have IBS! I cut out gluten, and it went away. I told my gastrointerologist this, and he replied “you tested negative for celiac; there’s no need to cut out gluten.” He proceeded to encourage me to enroll in an IBS study to test out some new drug treatment. *headdesk*

    Jules wrote on March 10th, 2011
  2. To all you Primal Newbs:

    All of you that still consume rice cakes and other baked goods that are gluten free must be newbies to the primal lifestyle.

    It’s been 1 year exactly for me now…I used to crave that stuff, too, when I first went primal. Figured once in awhile I cheat so what’s the harm. Yes, I call eating gluten free ‘cheating’. It’s not primal. Put down the gf donut!!!

    I don’t even consume chocolate or any nuts because of the extremely high phytate content.

    Meat,fish, fowl, organ meats, kidney fat, lard, tallow, all vegetables, salads, mushrooms, raw egg yolks, bone marrow, bone broths, stews without tubers, etc…

    Eventually, the cravings for baked goods and sweets goes away completely.
    I promise:)

    Suvetar wrote on March 27th, 2011
  3. Hi all

    In my browsing I came across this article To summarise it claims that most people who have problems when eating bread because of gluten intolerance (excluding celiacs) may be so because bread (and presumably other wheat based products) is prepared too quickly and the gluten is therefore not fermented for long enough to become digestible (the author recommends eight hours fermentation for bread). What do people think? If its true one would have to revise the ‘avoid gluten’ advice, although it isn’t that easy to find bread that has been fermented for ‘long enough’. I certainly don’t see any in my supermarkets.

    I must add the disclaimer that I have not tried this bread.


    Richard wrote on July 20th, 2011
  4. Grain-free is best. There’s a Chinese text found in a Han tomb together with the oldest version of the Tao Te Ching (about 300BC if I remember rightly) dedicated to the health benefits of grain avoidance. Not that I’m relying on ancient Chinese wisdom, just that, it’s THAT obvious, that they even got it back then, when grains were relatively new to the diet.
    This obsession with grass seeds, surely the worst food ever; it can’t be all about exorphins, can it?
    As for the putative need for “fibre” – did nobody ever hear of FODMAPS?
    Do Inuit have zero good bacteria? Or is inulin (a cancer promotor) just a junk carbohydrate, sugar for bugs?

    George Henderson wrote on December 11th, 2011
  5. Thank you for posting this, Mark.

    It’s funny when you talk about “crap in a box and rice-flour brownies” (a phrase I’d like to commandeer, if you don’t mind, though of course I’ll point folks back to you—that is brilliant!). So many of the celiacs and gluten-insensitives I know go, as done in this study, right from gluten-y things to gluten-free versions of the *same garbage*. Their blogs are obsessed with creating gluten-free versions of sugar bomb foods…and every once in a while, the “why am I gaining weight?/going on a diet!/eating less fat and liking it!” posts pop up. It is maddening.

    I’ve tried talking a little reason into the situation, but it’s very difficult. And then studies like these roll out and they get anxious about the potential damage they’re doing by eating gluten-free…without ever considering the huge amounts of sugar, canola, soy, and carb-heavy foods they are putting into their system as a potential problem. Really, it is not just maddening…it’s heartbreaking. Very sad.

    Jen wrote on March 13th, 2012
  6. I believe there have been some other posts here on MDA referencing ‘fake health foods’, mostly talking about junk foods that are touted as being ‘better for you’ because they are organic. The way I see it, a highly processed carb is a highly processed carb. Yeah, I’ve been gf for 4 years now. And when I make my once-yearly organic gf birthday cake, I am under no illusions that what I am making is anything other than a highly processed, sugary carbohydrate. That’s why it is a ONCE A YEAR treat only!!

    new england gal wrote on November 23rd, 2013

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!