If there was a survey among various people with a question asking for the most dangerous component found in food, majority of the respondents would point at... gluten. The truth is, that there has been a lot of information lately about the negative influence of gluten on human body. The consumption of products including this component is connected with the development of many diseases and disorders, and even – with the problems of overweight and obesity. What's more, there are slogans saying that every person who wants to stay healthy, should avoid gluten. But are those recommendations and the common fear from this component justified?
Tales about sports people
Once, the story of Novak Djokovic, the world-class Serbian tennin player who complained about chronic tiredness, asthma attacks and periods of worse effort tolerance, was popular. At the end of 2010 that competitor did many tests, which ended up with the diagnosis that gluten is responsible for his problems. According to that tennis player, excluding gluten from diet resulted in many positive changes in his body, which also improved his sports results. It should be admitted, looking at the development of his sports career, that after introducing gluten-free diet, Djokovic achieved a lot of success. In 2011 he finished the dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on world's courts. That's not the only example, when the gluten-free diet turned out to be helpful and beneficial. Similar stories are presented as a reference to the beliefs, according to which eliminating gluten is something like “holy grail” of dietetics letting people remove a lot of ailments and diseases, as well as improve sports results.
The anti-gluten gurus
Not only those who – according to their own words – have experienced the beneficial power of gluten-free diet, but also specialists with medical or dietetic education and who are experienced with health prophylaxis and medical practise, scare us with gluten. A good example is a cardiologist Dr William Davis, who wrote a real bestseller “Wheat belly”, where he describes the negative influence of wheat and its protein components on health, and where he presents the advantages of using gluten-free diet. The book wirtten by Dr David Perlmutter “Grain brain” (which I did not read till the end, because the amount of the basic factual errors stating that e.g. “glucose is created out of fat in human body”, was so big that I was not able to read it) can be a good continuation of the first book.
This topic is also often undertaken by bloggers who can create quite a complex argumentation from shallow grounds. For example, George Dvorsky, who created publication similar to that linked below:
There are many examples of such texts. Some of them are totally bumbling and based on wrong assumptions (example: “cancer cells are fed with gluten”), some are simply interesting, and some are impressive when it comes to the level of professionalism caused by the amount of bibliography (unfortunately, that literature often does not support the hypotheses found in texts...).
Complexity of the problem: NCGS and autoimmune diseases
It has to be admitted that gluten, which may be perceived as untrustworthy, is a controversial component of diet. As an example, you can point your attention to the problem called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). More than ten years ago nobody heard about such ailment, and nowadays we are aware that it may concern even 6-7% of the total population (according to the study done by Sapone et al. in 2010 and 2011, but not all the specialists believe that number, as they think it is significantly overestimated). In case of NCGS, consuming gluten may cause symptoms similar to those ocurring in people with celiac disease, such as:
worse cognitive functions (“blurred mind”),
tiredness, no willingness to action,
digestive tract disorders (including diarrhea),
mood disorder (depression),
muscle and joint soreness.
There are also speculations about other symptoms, but those mentioned above have been pointed by the specialists from the Center of Celiac Research and Treatment.
If it is harmful for health, maybe it's good to exclude it once and for all?
We already know that gluten may be harmful for some people (those coping with celiac disease and those with NCGS). Let's be honest, 6-7% of the population is a lot, and you should add people suffering from celiac disease (the frequency of occurring of this disorder is about 1 in 100) and you will see that large part of the society has problem with gluten. But can it be stated on that basis that gluten is harmful for everybody?
The truth is, there are two scientifically confirmed facts, on the basis of which it can be assumed that gluten is harmful for human body:
gluten is not digested totally by our digestive enzymes (this fact is often presented commonly in other words: “our digestive tract is not able to cope with gluten”),
because of gluten, the integrity of intestinal barrier may be disordered and immunity system awaken.
That are two pieces of information presented all the time by the followers of the total elimination of gluten from diet. If you want to discuss in that matter and try to convince that those facts are not real, I advise reading research and publications by Alessio Fasano (a famous competent gastroenterologist, pediatritian, scientists and a founder of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital). That's the reason why it's worth taking a closer look at those arguments and think what they mean.
First argument: nobody is able to digest gluten
The first argument is about incomplete digestability of gluten. Well, I have to admit, that I am surprised by the fact that if something in our digestive tract remains undigested by our digestive enzymes, it should be eliminated from diet. Certainly, it may happen that such component is problematic, but it doesn't have to be. For example, fibre – inulin. That component is not decomposed by our digestive enzymes, and, despite that fact, it is wanted in our diet. Why? Because it feeds the good bacteria, which live in our intestines and because it supports their multiplication. Can inulin be harmful? It may be, e.g. some people with irritable bowel syndrome suffer from the digestive tract disorder after consuming fructans (and inulin is one of them). In such situation, those people may experience bloats, flatulence or diarrhea (it's worth adding that rye and oat contain a lot of fructans and that's the reason why some people react badly to wholegrain rye bread – not necessarily because of gluten). The example of inulin shows that:
the fact that some dietary component is not digested by our digestive enzymes doesn't have to mean it is harmful,
in some cases the undigested food components are good for us,
some people may suffer from various reactions for the mentioned components, but it's not the indication for everybody to avoid them.
Obviously, that analysis of the argument does not overthrow the hypothesis, according to which gluten is harmful for everybody, however, it questions the validity of the conviction, according to which if something is not fully digested, it has to be harmful. It is an important matter, because it takes away the followers of the “complete elimination of gluten in each case” one important argument. But there is another important argument, that I have to refer to, as well.
Second argument: our immune system treats gluten as an invader
For the believers of the “old school”, who are sceptical about all kinds of modern “discoveries” treating about the harmfulness of gluten in cases other than celiac disease and allergy to gluten, it has to be difficult to believe the fact that this dietary component also influences the immune system of people without the mentioned ailments. I am writing about the whole society, not only people with NCGS. To be precise: gluten is perceived as an invader also by the immune system of healthy people. This statement seems surprising, but it is somehow justified by preliminary results of sudies, such as these:
Therefore, that dependency is at least probable and... it is sometimes used as an argument for the complete elimination of gluten also by healthy people. Since gluten is perceived by human immune system as an enemy, it may seem obvious that it should be eliminated from diet. Well, such assumption seems to be logical, but it becomes weaker when it is placed in a more life-related context and given an analogy. It's good to mention that our immune system meets plenty of factors treated (mostly correctly) as threat every day. Our immune cells constantly fight against various micro organisms from the air, beverages we drink and food we eat. But is that the reason why we should soak apples in iodine before eating them? Or to wash your hands with Domestos and wipe it in aseptic cloth?
If there was the necessity of relieving the immune system from the contact with possibly dangerous factor, in that case every house would have to have a sterilizer and wardrobe – a surgical mask. Of course, too big exposure to some harmful factors may be harmful for health, but we cannot exaggerate safety measures, because, according to experience, too much hygiene – no matter how it may sound – may also cause some risk and make our immune system disabled. How is it in case of gluten – we are not totally sure, but so far, there is no evidence for it to be harmful for everybody. Even if it causes some reaction of the immune system, it doesn't have to cause any negative results. What's more, in majority of cases – it doesn't.
It's good to know that the immune reactions may be different (there are different in celiac disease than in NCGS) and various strength, which is perfectly proven in the studies linked above (those are the abstracts, but those who want to read more can find the full publications). It is surprising that the cited studies are often presented as reference confirming the necessity of elimination gluten from healthy people's diet, and the truth is that such conclusions are not even included there! Vast majority of people are able to deal with gluten in diet very well, which is visualised in this study:
What does Alessio Fasano say about it?
Because of the fact, that the studies done by Dr Alessio Fasano started the fashion for gluten-free diet, it's good to know what he has to say about it. It has to be added, that, among others, his studies showed that gluten may disturb the integrity of intestinal barrier, he mentioned many times the fact that gluten is treated as an invader by human immune system – also in case of no allergy, celiac disease or NCGS. Well, it turns out that this specialist does not support the attitude of the “anti-gluten gurus”, who use his scientific experience in order to make their beliefs and recommendations more reliable. Isn't it ironic?
Here is what Dr Fasano said and was published in The Washington Post:
“It is true that our bodies do not have the proper enzymes to break down the complex proteins found in gluten. The immune system spots gluten as an invader and goes into battle mode to get rid of it. But here’s the key: In most people, the immune system is able to “clean up” the gluten invasion, and then it’s back to business as usual.”
What do other scientists say about it?
Although, in the times of anti-gluten hysteria, it could seem that the balanced belief of Alessio Fasano is too conservative, and that majority of scientists who take care of this issue present far-reaching conclusions, it is not that way in practise. It is also untrue that the presented information from this article is “outdated”. As a curiosity, I would like to offer the review of the latest scientific studies done by the specialist in this matter: Norelle R. Reilly. She analysed 58 studies and had very interesting conclusions, including the answer for the question from this article's title... You can read more by clicking on the link below:
Although gluten may be also harmful for people without celiac disease, there is no evidence stating that everybody should be afraid of it and avoid it. It is undoubtedly a controversial component of diet, but there is no scientific justification for it to be eliminated from diet without any specific indications. Certainly, you may exclude the products containing gluten from diet just in case (just like you can exclude the consumption of eggs or milk), but if such attitude is supposed to protect or improve health, it is not justified in professional literature and is simply exaggerated.