Gluten-Free in the News (some Yay! some Nay!)

February 6, 2013 in Categories: by

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Two news stories centered around gluten-free diets were published in the New York Times in the last week, one the magazine section and one in the science/health section.  I’d like to take this opportunity to give a huge shout-out to the NYT for having staff science writers (who actually have science backgrounds!).  So few media outlets have science reporters any more and I believe this is one of the biggest hurdles we face as a society in battling the enormous amount of misinformation out there.  There is a need for people with science backgrounds and a talent for distilling and explaining science to report on it in the media.  There’s a need, but there’s no money–most media outlets aren’t hiring.

03arthritis1-articleLarge-v2The first story The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints was published February 1st.  It excited many people with its explanation of the link between gut health (and specifically a leaky gut) and inflammation.  It shares the story of a 5-year old boy named Sheperd, diagnosed with the intensely painful autoimmune disease juvenile idiopathic arthritis at 3-years old, who found no answers with conventional medicine (either NSAIDs or DMARDs).  The story is told by Shepherd’s mother and her reports of interactions with her son’s pediatric rheumatologist make me angry.  I had similar experiences with my daughter’s pediatric gastroenterologist (one of the top in the country) who thought that putting my daughter on a dairy-free, gluten-free diet  was nonsense (and yet is cured her of her obstructive sleep apnea, so there!).

Shepherd’s parents finally hit a desperate point where they were willing to try “complimentary medicine” approaches.  They switched Sheperd to a gluten-free, dairy-free, nightshade-free and refined sugar-free diet in conjunction with supplements including fish oil, probiotics, sour Montmorency cherry juice and a Chinese herbal supplement called four-marvels powder.    In 6 weeks, Shepherd starting recovering, feeling less pain and having more mobility.  Not long afterward, they were able to wean him off of DMARDs and now report that the only times that Shepherd has had flares in the last year is after accidentally eating gluten or needing to go on antibiotics.

This story is powerful.  Emotional and triumphant.   The agony of waiting for something to work for six whole weeks, not knowing if it will, the stress the anxiety are palpable.   The sheer joy at being able to “fix” your child’s problem, but with always that seed of doubt of whether it will return, hit home.   And the explanation that arthritis is caused by a leaky gut which causes inflammation and stimulates the immune system  is a very good one.   I have no doubt that there are many families now researching gluten-free, dairy-free diets for their children.  Maybe some of the will take that small extra step and try a paleo diet.

05well_gluten-tmagArticleThe second story Gluten-Free, Whether You Need It or Not, published February 6th, presents the mystery and controversy around gluten sensitivity.  The controversy is really one of definition.  It is now being recognized that there exists celiac disease, wheat allergy, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity.  This paper in the very high impact research journal Gut (I always did love that name) suggests using the term “gluten-related disorders” as an umbrella term for all of these related but disparate conditions.  The problem is that gluten sensitivity is not well defined or well understood (hence the mystery).  There are medical professionals at both ends of the extreme, those that say it doesn’t exist versus those that claim that most people are actually gluten sensitive because humans are not adapted to digesting grains.

The article explains some very important points.  The incidence of celiac disease is increasing.  This might be because GMO grains contain more gluten.  The vast majority of celiacs remain undiagnosed.   Those who have gluten sensitivity are simply those who feel better when they follow a gluten-free diet (there is no test).  There is research showing that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome felt better and had fewer symptoms when following a gluten-free diet (in a very cleverly designed blinded trial).  This is important information to be out there in the mainstream media!

 But, I felt irked as I read this article.  It was written by one of the NYT’s staff science writers, Kenneth Chang, who does a good job of presenting most of the many sides to this issue.  But not all the sides.  Maybe I was feeling overly defensive, being obviously part of one of the fringe and fad extremes that the article presents, but I took issue with a few statements in this article..

The article gives an anecdotal example of a women who lost weight and had her allergies go away after adopting a gluten-free diet.  The article then goes on to explain that experts are skeptical.  Quote:  “It does not make obvious sense, for example, that someone would lose weight on a gluten-free diet. In fact, the opposite often happens for celiac patients as their malfunctioning intestines recover.”  Can I jump in here?  Celiacs gain weight when their intestines recover because they can finally absorb nutrients from their food.  People who are gluten sensitive but non-celiac often lose weight when they remove gluten from their diet because they are reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and cutting out a major source of nutrient-poor sugar-rich foods.  It actually makes total sense.

Two other statements just riled me, both implying that gluten-free diets are less healthy and so people who aren’t diagnosed with gluten-related disorders should not adopt gluten-free diets.  The first statement is a quote from Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center.  “It is not a healthier diet for those who don’t need it,” Dr. Guandalini said. These people “are following a fad, essentially.” He added, “And that’s my biased opinion.”  Yes, that is a biased opinion.  And in my biased opinion, it’s an uninformed one.  The second irksome statement:  “They [experts] also worried that people could end up eating less healthfully. A gluten-free muffin generally contains less fiber than a wheat-based one and still offers the same nutritional dangers — fat and sugar. Gluten-free foods are also less likely to be fortified with vitamins.”

Can I jump in again?  Okay, yes, I obviously think that the vast majority of gluten-free baked goods available are not healthy.  They tend to still be grain-based and loaded with emulsifiers.  Clearly, I do not believe in simply substituting wheat with rice and corn.  But, how about those of us who choose to replace gluten-containing foods with vegetables!?  I don’t need to remind you about how much healthier vegetables are than any grain, do I?  I don’t need to say that vegetables contain more of every single micronutrient than grains, for a fraction of the sugar and at least the same amount of fiber, do I?  The same can even be said of fruit, although fruit is somewhere in the middle in terms of sugar content.  And while people who eat gluten-free (and not paleo) typically do buy some gluten-free breads and pastas, they also typically consume fewer of these types of products than people eating the Standard American Diet.  So while gluten-free baked goods might not be fortified, you can’t judge an entire diet based on them.  Yes, I’m sure there are gluten-free folks out there chowing down on empty sugary gluten-free junk and who really are eating a less healthy diet.  But, to label gluten-free as less healthy is wrong.  Cutting gluten out of your diet does not deprive you of any nutrients.  I suppose I could also mention that whole vilification of fat thing here too.  But, it’s late.  So, I’ll summarize:  fat is not bad for you.  Sheesh.

I’m sure someone else reading the story would have focused more on the other positive aspects.  Gluten-free in the news is good.  Explaining that it’s a spectrum and that it’s not just celiac is good.  Encouraging people to have a dialogue with their doctors is good.  It’s just hard for me to gloss over the fact that this article put big warning signs on gluten-free diets like somehow cutting gluten our of your diet might deprive you of vital nutrition.  Did I already say sheesh?

Let’s end on a positive note though.  Paleo is gaining momentum and, while many still consider it a fad diet, the scientific basis behind it is providing traction.  More and more, people are healing themselves by changing how they eat.  More and more, wonderful success stories like Shepherd’s stories are making headlines.   And it’s very exciting to watch people take back their health!

Comments

Sarah, thank you so much for writing this . . . I read both these articles before your post & had EXACTLY the same reactions you had. I was so angered by the U. of Chicago’s doctor’s stance that I could not even articulate how I felt about it. Despite their obvious reluctance to look at the science & change course on what they are telling the public, the public is learning & winning their healthy lives back. Goooo Paleo!!

I changed my diet in July 2012…….mostly because I was tired of feeling tired and run down, despite exercising and eating a ” healthy” diet. Friends would probably tell you, I ate healthier than anyone they knew……yet I still did not feel good, let alone great. I eat primal at this point, because I still haven’t given up a tiny bit of cream in my morning coffee…..and it’s not a matter of I need my coffee with cream, but more I LOVE it. LOL In the course of eliminating flours and grains, and legumes and most dairy, I have gained a new lease on life. I feel like I’ve shed 20 years along with 20 lbs. My friends say I look “radiant”. I have reduced my thyroid meds and my blood sugar is back to normal, my cholesterol level are normal again as well.. No, I wasn’t diagnosed by a doctor with anything major, but I find doctors would rather throw a pill at you then get to the root of the problem. I listened to my body and now I’m feeling incredible! The constant headaches that I’d grown used to most of the time, are gone. My energy level is sky rocketed. I will be 50 in 2 weeks and I feel better than I ever have in my entire life! I for one am thankful for you and your work/research along with others that have gotten the word out to the rest of us and have simplified it all for us in understandable terms!

Great recap and examination of these pieces. Your quick overview of why Celiacs sometimes gain weight when going off gluten while the gluten sensitive might lose weight was so incredibly concise and spot on. I do, however, feel that the warning that gluten free diets might be less healthy is actually important – if someone only hears “gluten is bad” and switches to all gluten free items sold in stores, they could be in for some problems. Getting our vitamins/minerals through fortification is vastly inferior to getting them from real food (veggies/fruit/animal products), but it does keep people upright (for the most part). I fear for those who just jump on the gluten free bandwagon without getting the full Paleo or WAPF message. So, in my opinion, the warning was good, but the delivery of it was bad. It’s not that people who aren’t confirmed Celiac should go gluten free, it’s that ALL people who go gluten free should replace the wheat products with more nutrient dense food. You’re doing a great job of getting that message out – that is the next layer that needs to permeate the mainstream. Thanks for all you do!

Nice summation. I hadn’t seen the 2nd article and appreciate your pointing it out. Dr. Guandalini reminds me of the gastroenterologist (“world renowned”!) I saw many years ago who tested me for celiac even though I told him I wasn’t eating gluten. He shrugged, read my results, proclaimed me disease free and insisted I eat wheat as it’s so good for me. These doctors (as are most conventional docs) are trained to see disease, they are not trained to think critically, although I’m sure they’d take great offense to hear that.

Thank you for the insightful dissection of the gluten-free article. There was good background information, good individual cases, good research cited, and then the doctor quotes were so worthless.

I was amused to see that “PALEO” made it into the newspaper’s funnies today. (BC comic strip) Doesn’t that indicate that something is gaining mainstream attention?

Apparently we’re reading the same articles (and having the same reactions to them). I shared the first one about the boy to my FB timeline but not the second because of the, IMO, misstatements the author makes. I’ve run into this stupid bias ever since I had to give up gluten a couple of years ago, that eating gluten free is “unhealthy” because there are less vitamins and fiber (since most processed GF grain foods use a lot of starch in lieu of the wheat). However, there is a lot of fiber to be had in GF baked goods IF you choose the right ingredients. I would put my GF grain bread up against any traditional bread found in the grocery store. Especially since the only reason most commercial wheat breads have ANY nutrients in them is because they were “fortified”. A necessary step in the production since the REAL nutrients were stripped out when the wheat was processed into flour. My GF grain recipes use lots of whole grains, just not wheat, rye or barley.

And, as you say, vegetables provide plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals in them so there’s absolutely NO reason a GF diet is inherently unhealthy or should be avoided by people who don’t have some form of gluten sensitivity. Junk food is junk food whether it is GF or not. It’s the stupidest freaking argument because if ANY diet is unhealthy, then it is unhealthy for EVERYONE. The idea that a GF diet is ONLY healthy if you have gluten sensitivity is ludicrous.

The fact that they had a double blind study that categorically showed that a GF diet was better for folks with IBS should tell you something, like hey, maybe there’s something to this “gluten is bad for you” thing.

I had similar reaction a few months ago to a short (one column) article in Prevention magazine. The cover line said “the truth about gluten-free!” The little article covered celiac and gluten sensitivity in a few sentences and then concluded that there was no need to go gluten-free unless you were diagnosed with gluten sensitivity/celiac. (Because the diet is “restrictive,” dontchaknow.) Prevention magazine is published by Rodale Press, the same company that published “Wheat Belly.” Grrrr.

I was a little confused by the article with the little boy, because she said her doctor didn’t approve removing 2 important food groups from the boy’s diet, but he was fine with her doing “the rest of the regimen.” So, I don’t know what that means; she didn’t clarify. My guess is he continued with the nightshades & dairy, but gave up the gluten and sugar? For some people, going gluten-free is enough (and I admit I’m jealous of those people!)

THAT’S TELLING THEM !! Those doctors are goons. Great story from your soap box. Love it, love it, love it.

And I loved the comment: doctors would rather throw a pill at you then get to the root of the problem. So true.

I love your sense of humor and your honesty here! I also adore your science background and thank you for breaking things down for us who like to have that understanding, but lack the knowledge to simply break it down.like you do!!

I’m glad that there’s more research going on with regard to the link between diet and disease. And I am also glad that some of this research is hitting the mainstream media. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a magazine like Fitness, Shape, Self, Runner’s World, etc., where there is some nutritionist discussing that it’s bad to go gluten-free unless you have Celiac’s disease. And what really makes me mad is when the primary arguments against the paleo diet in these magazines has to do with difficulty and cost. Seriously???? Since going paleo almost a year ago just because I kept reading about it and thinking I wanted to disprove Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, Mark Sisson, etc., I feel 10 years younger, have improved my athletic performance, muscle tone, and recovery time, and am NEVER EVER going back to grains. I agree with you that doctors would rather medicate than to find a root cause for illness — my sister-in-law is a doctor, and the amount of training doctors receive with regard to exercise and nutrition is appalling (she asks me for advice). Thanks for sharing as always!

Sarah, I appreciate your sharing information so much. I have been told by two different Dr’s that I do have Celiac and I don’t. I do know that I have gluten sensitivities and I’m following a Paleo diet. It is helping. Now if I can just find the right Dr in my town to help some. I have had the great weight loss with diarrhea, was told I have leaky gut. I read all about it and don’t miss your blogs. I hope to be able to purchase your book. You are a blessing
Thanks ….Sarah

I have a question~ I formulate & culture naturally feremnted bread starters. Since humans can’t digest unfermented grains properly and some bloodlines can’t digest anything but whole milk couldn’t going back to the old ways prevent a lot of problems we are seeing now?
I am using a lot of certified GMO free flours and actually almost killed my cultures using one common brand name flour. Dairy cows & meat animals are pumped full of GMO foods & growth/milk promoting drugs. Could modern farming methods be the cause of these illnesses?

They may contribute, but it is hard to say how safe fermented grains might be without any long-term studies showing whether or not a diet of fermented grains only can correlate with autoimmune disease. They have not been found safe for those who already have gluten intolerance. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

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