"As a training and nutrition coach for bodybuilders I am constantly bombarded with questions about various fad diets and whether or not they work. One such diet that I get asked about a lot is the gluten free diet. A common thought in the fitness industry right now is that many people are actually gluten intolerant and that this is a common cause of weight gain and a myriad of other health issues.
To clear up some of the confusion I wanted to share this article by Elliot Reimers. Elliot does an excellent job clearing up some of the confusion surrounding gluten intolerance and the gluten free fad."
Alongside the rapid proliferation of “organic food” subsections of grocers across the United States, consumers have exhibited a concurrent fascination with “gluten-free” foods. Gluten, for the unaware, is a protein found in wheat/rye/barley-based foods. Readers may be familiar with the book entitled “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis in which he purports that the simple elimination of wheat-based foods from your diet will solve your weight woes and shrink fat cells.
I have to be honest, at the time of this writing, I haven’t read his book simply because it screams “fad” and I can already tell it’s full of cherry-picked citations to support his supposition. Unless the epidemiology of Celiac disease is greatly askew, then I see little reason to believe so many people should be concerned about wheat and/or gluten as the culprit of their lack of weight/fat loss.
Epidemiology of Celiac disease and gluten-related afflictions
According to Dr. Davis, every day over 100 million American’s suffer adverse effects from the consumption of wheat products. That’s roughly 1/3 of the United States’ total population, yet the Center for Disease Control reports that only 1 in every 133 people are affected by Celiac disease and about 1 in every 22 people are non-Celiac gluten intolerant.
Moreover, Celiac disease generally manifests itself from a genetic variation in the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene family, specifically HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8; but only ~25% of the population contain said specific variants that increase risk of Celiac disease, and only ~3-4% of that 25% actually develop the disease.
Genetic variability in the development of Celiac Disease
Am I missing something here? Granted I know there is more to the whole gluten debate than just Celiac disease, but there is little clinical/scientific validity for the argument against gluten and/or wheat-based foods other than subjective responses from consumers.
It seems quite clear that aberrant ideas from prestigious individuals are readily accepted as tenets by the vast majority of people. It’s no surprise figures like Dr. Oz and Dr. Davis forayed into the highly lucrative health and nutrition industries. Moreover, food companies love the “gluten-free” niche since they have little competition. Just look at how expensive a “gluten-free” version of food is versus its gluten-laden counterpart.
Should you be concerned?
Honestly, the best thing you can do (aside from blood tests and genetic phenotyping) to test your tolerance for gluten is an elimination diet (i.e. methodical elimination of gluten-rich foods). However, the symptoms of Celiac disease/gluten intolerance are somewhat latent and non-specific. Just because you eat a piece of wheat bread and suddenly get constipated doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t tolerate gluten; there are a myriad of reasons complications can arise from the ingestion of various foods, not just gluten intolerance.
If you really do have reactions to gluten, the damage of the intestinal lining and inflammatory tissue response can take months, if not years to fully develop (read: be apparent). Similarly, the time it takes to reverse the condition can take just as long, so it’s nearly impossible to conclude one way or another just on a few days of gluten-free dieting. If you’ve been eating wheat/rye/barley-based foods over the years and aren’t experiencing any gastrointestinal issues, odds are you are at a low risk for Celiac disease, and probably can tolerate gluten just fine.
- Celiac Disease Facts & Figures | NFCA. (n.d.). Celiac Disease Symptoms and Gluten-Free Diet Information | NFCA. Retrieved March 30, 2015, from http://www.celiaccentral.org/celiac-disease/facts-and-figures/
- Tjon JM, van Bergen J, Koning F. Celiac disease: how complicated can it get? Immunogenetics. 2010 Oct;62(10):641-51. doi: 10.1007/s00251-010-0465-9. Epub 2010 Jul 27. Review. PubMed citation