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

This Gluten-Free Thing Is a Really Overblown Fad!

Gluten FreeThis is a comment I’m starting to see more and more often. Go to any news article about gluten and the comment section will be littered with angry outbursts and outright vitriol for people who go gluten-free. Skeptical blogs love to trot out posts lambasting and ridiculing the “gluten-free fad.” And from what I can tell, nothing inspires a contemptible eye-roll like a person asking a waiter in a restaurant if they have gluten-free options. By some stretch of the known laws of cause-and-effect, the removal of gluten from someone’s diet apparently causes irreparable harm to people with knowledge of the decision and deserves unequivocal reprobation. Otherwise, why else would they care so much?

Well, gluten-free is clearly more popular than ever. More and more people are becoming aware of it. Google searches for “gluten” have been trending higher month over month for years, while the number of searches for “celiac” has plateaued. 30% of American adults are actively trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets, according to a recent pollGluten-free dating sites are popping up to help gluten-free dieters match up with people who share their situation. The FDA’s just weighed in with some official standards for gluten-labeling. It’s everywhere, in other words. It’s arrived. It’s popular. And whenever anything gets popular, people immediately begin hating it. I’m not sure why that is, really, but it’s a known human phenomenon. Couple that with your already annoying co-worker droning endlessly on about this new diet she’s on, and I can see how someone might get a bit annoyed at all the gluten-free talk.

But is the vitriol really necessary? Does its popularity invalidate it as a legitimate therapeutic option for people with a sensitivity or downright intolerance to gluten? Should incurious cynics masquerading as skeptics be so quick to dismiss it?

Okay, maybe sometimes people can be a bit evangelical about avoiding gluten, and that’s unpleasant. And sometimes, people can’t give you a straight answer when you grill them on exactly why they’re avoiding gluten. I’d wonder why you felt it was your place to “grill them” in the first place, of course, but there is that subset of the population who takes umbrage at people making health decisions without conducting randomized controlled trials, being able to cite research by memory, and consulting the authorities.

I’ll also admit that the prospect of marketers taking over and appropriating the movement for their own benefit concerns me. For many people, a “gluten-free” label unfortunately bestows a cachet of health onto whatever processed food it graces. Potato chips? They’re gluten-free! Triple-chocolate brownie mud slide fudge-topped soy flour locust bean gum explosion? Gluten-free! Eat without guilt! Gluten-free bread that makes up for the lack of gluten’s texturizing power with a half cup of soybean oil? Go for it! Even foods that never contained gluten in the first place, like Cheetos, and hummus, are getting the gluten-free label to capitalize on the trend.

On one hand, it’s like the fat-free labeling craze, where you had fat-free cookies with twice the sugar, fat-free yogurt with thrice the sugar, fat-free salad dressing with whatever sorcery they incorporated to make that possible. And people ate those things with willful abandon, confident that “fat-free” was a synonym for “healthy” – and obesity rates continued to rise. Heck, the fat-free movement most likely exacerbated America’s obesity problem. I can understand why people who mistrust food marketing would be skeptical of gluten-free in general.

Of course, there is an important difference that distinguishes gluten-free from other faddish, market-driven diets: you don’t actually need gluten-free products to go gluten-free. The fat-free movement turned people off of legitimately healthy nutrient-dense foods like beef, eggs, butter, nuts, avocados, and olive oil just because they contained fat, whereas going gluten-free doesn’t remove a vital, essential nutrient or food. In fact, it can even increase your intake of nutrients, assuming you replace the gluten-containing foods with naturally gluten-free meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts rather than gluten-free junk food. In my experience, gluten-free consumers are more informed about health in general and do the former.

Amidst all the marketing speak, the gluten-free water, the gnashing of teeth upon discovering that the person you’re talking to avoids gluten, real science is being done, and any honest, literate person who looks at the available evidence on the health effects of gluten will admit that there’s something to this “fad.” And yet, I’m increasingly struck by the unwillingness of intelligent people to acknowledge the reams of research coming out every week exploring the effects of gluten on non-celiacs.

It couldn’t be that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real and we don’t know how many people actually have it as the epidemiology is too new and underdeveloped. It can’t possibly be that gluten-free diets might reduce adiposity/inflammation via epigenetic effects (potentially reaching across generational lines). There’s no way that gluten free diets help non-celiac IBS patients who had no preconceived notions of gluten-free dieting (and thus no risk of being influence by the hype). And that case study of the child with type 1 diabetes going into remission with a gluten free diet? Let’s just sweep that under the rug and completely forget about it. Oh, what about the link between autism and non-celiac gluten sensitivity? Doesn’t exist. PubMed is a liar. Those autistic kids with GI symptoms who do respond positively to a gluten-free diet? They don’t, and the study you just thought you read is a figment of your imagination. All that hubbub about modern dwarf wheat being more allergenic than ever is also nonsense. Besides needing a stool to reach the top shelf, modern wheat is totally identical to older wheat and is no more allergenic.

Another popular canard is the “celiac is too rare for most people to worry about” one. Well, about that: the latest research out of Australia (a remarkably gluten-conscious country) shows that celiac is far more prevalent than previously thought and about 50 percent of the population carries the genetic markers associated with gluten sensitivity. Scientists used a combination of traditional antibody testing (which measures the immune response to gluten) with analysis of genetic risk factors for celiac to reach their conclusions. Not everyone with risk factors actually displayed gluten intolerance or celiac disease, of course, but the presumption is that some combination of environmental factors – inflammatory diet, damaged gut microbiome, etc. – could trigger its expression. (Epigenetics rears its head yet again.) Most people skeptical of gluten-free diets take an “either you are or you aren’t” stance on gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, while the results of the Australian research would suggest that it’s far more dynamic and that a large portion of the population can develop issues with gluten given the right (or wrong) environmental context.

Nope, forget all that research: it’s just people latching onto a fad. It’s just nearly a third of Americans going gluten-free because Miley Cyrus did it (I eagerly await widespread adoption of twerking by millions of soccer moms). It’s millions of people sticking with a dietary regimen that offers no tangible benefits and actually makes them actively unhealthier. And if there is a benefit, it’s all in their heads.

I guess it’s easier to pick on the easy targets and ignore the people with evidence. It’s easy to dismiss the entire movement because of a few misinformed trend-followers, but it’s dishonest. Look – I’m all for the denunciation of health fads and trends that don’t make sense and are based on spurious claims, but not everything that’s popular is bad.

My favorite thing is when “concerned health experts” caution against starting a gluten-free diet without talking to your doctor, paying for a test to determine a gluten allergy, and consulting with a registered dietitian. As if giving up bread, pasta, and cake for more animals and plants is a dangerous undertaking that requires professional assistance. As if removing gluten and feeling loads better only to feel terrible upon a chance reintroduction is an unreliable way to determine if you should go gluten-free.

Here’s why I welcome the explosion in gluten-free awareness, even if it all amounts to a whole lot of nothing for some people: it leads to an overall more healthy diet. Even if you can eat gluten without incident, even if your gut flora is able to cleave gluten in twain for easy digestion, you will still get more nutrients by replacing your grain products with more meat, seafood, vegetables, roots, and fruit. Sure, you’ve got the folks who go gluten-free by swapping in gluten-free versions of all their favorite foods and end up eating nutrient bereft diets full of refined alternative flours, but I think they’re in the minority for a few reasons.

First, gluten-free junk food tastes worse than the originals, although that’s changing as the market grows and food producers improve their methods.

Second, gluten-free products are generally more expensive than the regular products.

Third, in my experience, people who go gluten-free usually stumble into a Primal way of eating. The way I see it playing out is you have sweet potatoes or rice instead of rolls at dinner. You go with a real corn tortilla or lettuce wrap tacos instead of burritos. Instead of buying all that gluten-free bread that turns into dust at the slightest touch, you spend the money on meat and vegetables. You go out to eat at a burger joint and maybe they don’t have the gluten-free bun that day, so you have the patty on a salad and realize it’s not such a bad way to eat – and you stick with it.

I’ve read the studies. I’ve consulted the experts (who are actually studying this stuff). I’ve witnessed the incredibly positive changes in thousands of readers, friends, family members, and clients who gave up gluten (and most grains for that matter). Heck, I’ve felt it myself. Is there something to this whole gluten-free thing?

I’d say so, yeah.

What about you?

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. Been gluten free for over a year, increased the variety of fats and oils in my diet. do a small carb refeed maybe twice a week, and I can honestly say I feel 10 years younger. My sleep is very restful and deep and I feel on top of the world. Best move I made.

    ian wrote on September 9th, 2013
  2. This is an example of a fascinating medical syndrome that I first noticed years ago – I couldn’t find anything in the medical literature about it, so I got to name it myself: Reverse Food Sensitivity by Proxy.

    Unlike most ailments, RFSbP is transmitted almost entirely electronically. Gluten is a common cause, as are MSG and aspartame.

    The syndrome can lie dormant for years – an attack is generally triggered when a “carrier” (who does not suffer from the disease, but merely transmits it) posts a message online about how he or she is sensitive to, or allergic to, or just made to feel bad by food . This statement somehow creates in the RFSbP sufferer, who may be thousands of miles away, the *absolute certainty* that the person making the claim is either lying or mistaken. (The mechanism by which this certainty is generated is currently unknown – but it would be sweet irony indeed if it turns out to be a histamine reaction.)

    A simple and inexpensive test is available to detect RFSbP. The patient is exposed to the sentence, “When I eat wheat, I get diarrhea,” and their response is evaluated. “Normal” (RFSbP-neg) responses include variations on the following:

    “Oh, that’s too bad.” or
    “Let’s talk about something else now.”

    RFSbP-pos responses are instantly recognizable because they’re things no sane person would say, like:

    “No you don’t.” or
    “Prove it.”

    Until the syndrome is better understood, hopes for a cure are slim.

    bob geary wrote on September 13th, 2013
  3. After 17 years on steroidal inhalers for asthma and drugs for GERD, both my husband and I were diagnosed, thru blood and sputum tests, with dairy allergies and gluten intolerance. Since eliminating them from our diet 3 years ago, we are both off our inhalers…only wrestle with seasonal allergies now; off the drugs for GERD because we no longer experience heartburn; we are saving $300/month on the drugs we no longer use; have adopted a healthy diet and lifestyle…used our savings on drugs to buy bicycles!… And at ages 62 & 64, we came down to a healthy weight, are more active and feeling better than ever and looking forward to retirement in less than a year.

    At our age, we really don’t care what the skeptics say because we are living the truth and proof of it!

    Jan wrote on September 14th, 2013
  4. I’m a coeliac, and since my diagnosis a year ago I’ve put on about 20lbs- 100% proof it isn’t a weight loss diet!! All those brownies and cakes have extra sugar and flavourings in them to make them taste edible!! However, my hair has stopped falling out and I no longer sleep 12+ hours a night, so there have been improvements!
    The biggest thing from my point of view that the PB covers but I was never told on diagnosis, is that giving up gluten is only part of the answer to feeling better. I can’t eat dairy when I’m stressed and eating primally makes almost as much difference to how I feel as going gluten free did.

    Becky wrote on September 18th, 2013
    • Becky,
      May I make another suggestion on the weight gain from a gluten free diet; since “we” (I am coeliac as well) can no longer consume products containing wheat, rye and barley products or their hybrids, we switch to products containing corn and rice (… tapioca, pea starch, potato starch and other starchy foods), all of which have a high glycemic index, which contributes heavily to our expanding waistlines. For a gluten free diet to work for weight loss, you really need to eliminate all grains and restrict starchy foods to 1 or 2 times per week.


      Lee Graham wrote on September 18th, 2013
  5. Actually Cheetos have always contained gluten and hummus can contain gluten as well, you need to check your sources. Gluten is used to give consistency and texture to different foods (that’s why gluten free bread breaks). Also, don’t forget that grains are at the bottom of the food pyramid, therefore essential in our diet.
    And no, going gluten free doesn’t make you loose a ton of weight if you were already having a balanced diet. I’ve only started eating more processed foods in the past 5 years or so, and I was never under weight as Miley Cyrus is (because yeah her weight is not appropriate for her height and the “she is fit stuff” doesn’t work either, muscle is heavier than fat).
    I believe that making the gluten free diet a fab, where most people won’t even care if there has been cross contamination doesn’t help us coeliacs in any way.
    I was diagnosed 26 years ago, I’m 27 now, so believe me, I know what I’m saying.

    Eva wrote on September 30th, 2013
  6. Funny what we push on TV – drink more milk, splenda is good for you, there is nothing wrong with high fructose corn syrup, nothing wrong with GM foods, eat beef that we shoot up with hormones and then antibiotics to keep them alive, and eat whole wheat (all things that indicate cause health issues).

    As my doctor has indicated for every 1 person informed they have issues with wheat – there are 80 that are not told they have a serious issue with wheat. He is telling all his patients to go 2 weeks off of wheat to see if they see any difference. The interesting part is all that have tried are now going gluten free. As he said to me wheat causes inflammation, which triggers a lot of health issues.

    It is sad that it took several years for a doctor to tell me to step away from gluten – I ended up with very serious health issues since it took years for them to come around and tell me to step away.

    Troy wrote on November 10th, 2013
  7. Excellent article, as are all on MDA, love that you back your insights with studies Mark, often share them with my health coaching clients. I went grain free two years ago to help heal Hashimoto’s and feel so much better for it. Personally found it much easier to go grain free than gluten free, to avoid having to find similar substitutes – instead, like you say, real food like meat and salads and veg and fruit. Don’t feel deprived in any way.

    Kylie Bevan wrote on January 26th, 2014
  8. Hahahahaha. You left out gluten free rice! I love that it’s a consumer driven fad, because non-coeliac people were doing it before there were processed products to sell. Simply because they feel better sans gluten.

    Freya wrote on June 16th, 2014
  9. Just to clarify… when products that have either always been gluten free by nature of their ingredients or are processed junk labeled “gluten free”…. YES a company might be benefiting from opportunistic marketing to a new wave of dieters and YES many people role their eyes at the site of it (“gluten free orange juice?! are you kidding me?!”)… but please step back and remember that it is actually serving a life saving purpose. 1% of the population can not consume even a trace amount of gluten without a severe threat to our health (which is actually a very high prevalence), and clear labeling let’s us know that the company selling the product has taken safe guards against cross contamination and it can be safely consumed. This is not a fad, its for the good of public health!

    maureen wrote on August 3rd, 2014
  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I have been growing weary of the onslaught of negative publicity that this movement is beginning to receive….but in particular I have decided to stop trying to discuss going gluten free even amongst friends. The recent backlash against it…..and I can see from the tone in conversations that people think I am just part of a big fad. Heck, I was doing this a long time before it became popular. And I did it out of necessity!

    Beverly wrote on August 31st, 2014

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