Agricultural grains and gluten have seen a lot of press attention of late with the rise of the Paleo diet and with high profile gluten-free athletes like Novak Djokovic also being advocates it’s easy to see why. But what is gluten? And does it affect us all? In this weeks nutrition article we are going to take a look at how gluten affects the gut, why it might be a problem for you and also some alternatives to eating gluten-rich foods.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a substance found naturally in agriculturally farmed grains such as wheat, rye and barley but is also used as a thickening agent in processed foods such as just about every processed food on the planet! Gluten is also found in oats but the research does not seem to indicate that this necessarily means someone with a form of gluten intolerance has to stop eating oats. However, although some individuals see no adverse reaction to eating oats most literature does suggest further long-term studies are needed on the consequences of prolonged consumption to deem them safe.
What is the problem with gluten?
Celiac disease is a condition whereby genetic markers in the gut predispose an individual to an intolerance to gluten – the presence of an enzyme called tissue transglutaminase in the gut is also a key marker for screening for celiac disease and this substance is the agent that denatures gluten and makes it a powerful antigen. In this state gluten then causes a reduction in the villi of the gut, these are structures we rely on to absorb nutrients efficiently and to provide secretion to the gut. Lesions in the gut wall are followed by inflammation but we will talk about the impact this has on us in the next section. The medical field has known of celiac disease for a long time but in recent years the prevalence has reduced from about 1 in 1000 to now being considered to affect 1 in 100 people. This is significant because it means that individuals who pass screening for celiac disease and show no genetic markers for the condition can be considered as potential candidates for gluten sensitivity, a separate condition. Because screening for this less severe type of the intolerance is almost impossible many people have tried gluten free diets out of curiosity and have seen benefits from them – thus hinting at more widespread negative impacts of gluten consumption in individuals who do not necessarily consider themselves symptomatic.
The resultant impact of gluten on your health
When talking about the impact of gluten on your health it is important to remember that most of the information we have on gluten is almost entirely based on the impact gluten has on the gut of a celiac patient. As such, unfortunately most claims on the impact to our general health can at best be deemed as anecdotal. They are however logical and it is thought to be more than likely that the same mechanisms that effect the gut of a celiac patient act to a lesser degree in the gut of a non-celiac individual and those with gluten sensitivity. So, following gut lesions and inflammation there are assumed to be two main ramifications on our health. The first is what are termed to be malabsorptive disorders which essentially stem from nutrient deficiency with the most common being osteoporosis (calcium deficiency), anaemia (of which there are several types but in the case of celiac patients the type is due to iron deficiency) and vitamin C deficiency. This is due to a reduction in villi in our gut that as I said earlier are the structures we use to absorb nutrients. The second impact on our health that gluten might have is somewhat more controversial and for good reason too, given how we have been told for a long time by our governments and nutrition authorities that grains sit atop the food pyramid. The second point refers to gut permeability which is alleged to increase following gut lesions, this trauma then results in reduced defences against free radicals to permeate the gut wall and enter the vessels housed in the deeper layers of the gut. When free radicals enter these vessels they become free to roam our arterial, lymphatic and venous systems and are why some believe there is a strong association with gastrointestinal cancers in patients with celiac disease.
So how do you eliminate gluten?
I hope I have got across to you that really the jury is out as to whether or not gluten affects us all and the only way for you to decide is to try a prolonged restriction diet. Here is how to plan your restriction diet:
- 8 weeks might seem a long time but it is absolutely necessary. Wheat for example has a transit time of 4-6 weeks, this means that from the last time you ate a piece of toast, slice of pizza or a cereal bar it will be 4-6 weeks until your gut is done digesting it. This is significant because the human gut is very intelligent! It does not begin regenerating the damaged villi until all gluten/grains are removed from the gut – this is shown in the literature to be accurate by endoscopic findings in celiac patients trialling gluten free diets.
- Avoid eating “functional foods”, these are foods that you might normally find gluten existing in naturally but have been removed to make life easier for celiac and gluten sensitive individuals. These foods are expensive for a start but also the literature seems to indicate their starch modulations are not necessarily conducive to healing of the gut in any case, so they are somewhat contradictory.
- Use foods such as wild rice, quinoa and lentils to replace grains if you crave the kind of heaviness and satiety that grain based foods bring. Raw food bars free of gluten are also a good way of managing cravings.
- My final point is just on fibre! I am telling you this because it seems this is one thing devout grain eaters seem to think you will lack in a gluten free diet – I can assure you if you eat plenty of root vegetables and green leafy veg you will have all the fibre you need for a healthy functioning gut.