Every day the marketplace is flooded with more and more gluten-free products.  More and more people are turning to GAPS and other gluten-free type diets in order to heal themselves from everything leaky gut syndrome to Celiac’s and Crohn’s disease, to thyroid disorders, even depression.  In fact, completely grain-free diets have been shown to significantly help families of children with autism and behavioral issues balance those behavioral issues.  However, in the quest for perfect health or the fountain of youth, have gluten-free diets and the subsequent ubiquity of products in the marketplace become just another diet fad?  Is gluten sensitivity on the rise or is it just another item to add to the laundry list of the “Hypochondriac’s Journal”?  Are people jumping on the bandwagon due to real life gluten-sensitivities?

Before we answer those questions, let me be clear on one thing.  I am not one to jump on any diet bandwagon nor do I believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. {See A View from the Kitchen for what I do believe.}  I do not believe every single person on the face of the earth has a sensitivity to gluten.  I don’t believe there is anything that applies to every single person except death and taxes.  I do, however, believe, due to modern farming techniques, and hybridizing and genetically modifying grains has caused a heightened sensitivity that may lead a lot of people to suspect a gluten intolerance.

So what IS gluten and gluten-sensitivity/intolerance?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and oats (though oats are far lower in gluten than other grains and can be made to be gluten-free). Gluten sensitivity is an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems.

A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 “diseases” that can be caused or exacerbated  by eating gluten including osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological issues, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It has also been linked to autism.

 What about Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a permanent intolerance to the gliadin part of gluten. It is genetic, and an inherited condition. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, where the body’s immune system starts attacking normal tissue, such as intestinal tissue, in response to eating gluten. If gluten remains in the diet these attacks continue degenerating health further.

People with celiac disease are at risk for malabsorption of food, which cause nutritional deficiencies and may also result in conditions such as iron deficiency anemia, osteopenia, and osteoporosis.  People with a gluten intolerance usually do not have as severe intestinal damage, and therefore are not at high risk for these nutritional deficiencies, however, even slight deficiencies of trace elements can cause serious symptoms and lead to other health issues.

What is the difference between Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity.

A large study done by four laboratories in Italy and the US collaboratively  was done with gluten sensitive patients, and celiac disease patients, as well as a number of control subjects. All were subjected to a gluten challenge, whereby they were fed high amounts of gluten for four months, followed by a gluten-free diet.

Here is what they found:

  1. The anti-gliadin antibody status is different for gluten-sensitivity versus celiac disease. (It means that if you test negative for celiac disease it doesn’t mean you are in the clear.  The antibodies are differently profound.)
  2. There’s no evidence of  ‘leaky gut’ in gluten intolerant patients. This is specifically related to celiac disease.
  3. None of the gluten intolerant patients had anti-wheat antibodies. The response to gluten is quite different from an allergic reaction to wheat.
  4. In gluten-sensitive patients, gluten activates the ‘innate’ immune system – meaning that the protein is immediately recognised as foreign and toxic. Celiac disease involves activation of the ‘adaptive’ immune system, which initiates an autoimmune reaction.
  5. Gluten-sensitivity in the absence of celiac disease is a real phenomenon, and can be clearly distinguished at a molecular level.
  6. A gluten-free diet resulted in a relief from symptoms in gluten-sensitive patients within a few days, and this lasted for the whole 4 years of the study.


What about wheat intolerance?  What is the difference between wheat intolerance and gluten intolerance?
There is, in fact, a difference between the two.
Wheat is a grain.  Gluten is the sticky protein that is found  in wheat and other grains such as barley, rye, malt, and – to a lesser extent – oats. Wheat and gluten are related – they come together in a package.Gluten is what binds the dough in breads and baked goods.  Wheat and gluten are not the same, but are closely related, so it is possible to have an allergy or sensitivity to one and not the other but only if you are allergic to wheat.

If you are allergic to gluten, you need to stay away from wheat, since wheat contains gluten. And if you’re allergic to wheat, since gluten is part of wheat’s make up, then you probably need to avoid gluten as well. But if you’re allergic only to wheat, you can still enjoy other grains that have gluten in them. In short, if you are allergic to gluten you must avoid all glutinous grains.  If you are allergic to wheat itself but not gluten, you may be able to eat glutinous grains except wheat.

You have to get tested for both gluten and wheat sensitivities separately.    You may be able to tolerate wheat in small doses if you are not sensitive to gluten but to know where the triggers lie you must go off wheat and gluten for at least 21 days and then slowly “test” your reactions by having small amounts of wheat first, then other glutinous grains.  You also may be allergic to the highly hybridized strains of wheat.   If you are only allergic to wheat you might try einkorn, spelt (though more and more people are developing sensitivities as a result of overuse), or kamut.


Why are so many people discovering a gluten-intolerance or sensitivity?  

Let me just point out, gluten is a poison.  Literally.  More on that in a second.  If you think gluten is not causing you problems, just think of those people who smoke cigarettes.  They tolerate it and tolerate it and may do fine until one day they aren’t.  Eventually the body will “tip”  and that smoker will end up with, at the very least, breathing issues, and at worst, emphysema or lung cancer.  Same goes with gluten in today’s nutrition climate.  It’s only a question of when gluten-sensitivity or celiac disease will rear it’s ugly head.  Think of the rapidly rising number of autoimmune diseases.

Grains, like wheat, contain few defenses to the forces of nature i.e pests and other animals who might eat them before they have a chance to mature and spread their seed.  Every organism on this earth has the innate desire to survive.  The only way they can fight back against predators is via the poisons in their husks. Gluten is that poison.  Some creatures, like birds, are clearly adapted to overcome the defenses of gluten cereal grains. Most animals, including most mammals and our closest relatives the omnivorous fruit and insect-eating chimpanzees, are not adapted to grains and don’t eat them in large quantities.

The question is, are humans adapted? Nope. We have the same makeup as our primitive relatives who didn’t eat grains. The only thing that’s changed is our diet on a large scale.

You are not gluten-sensitive? Still, your body strains to adjust to it in your system, one way or another. It’s a stressor, and it takes its toll somewhere. It might not have found its tipping point yet.

The reasons why we are more affected by gluten sensitivity/intolerance are many.

** We are eating more wheat than ever before.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) is all about wheat.  Breads, pizzas, cakes and pastries, pasta, batter fried everything….  It is no longer a small part of a balanced diet.  It IS our diet.

** Couple that with the fact that wheat contains more gluten than ever before.  Ancient forms of wheat like spelt and einkorn which are lower gluten grains have long been abandoned by industrialized agriculture in favor of hybrid strains of wheat that contain high amounts of gluten (and have genetically modified other strains to include even more gluten!) because a higher gluten content means less need for expensive pest control.  Higher gluten  content also means fluffier breads (think Wonder Bread), cakes and pastries.   We have forgotten how to chew our foods.  We prefer light bread products to the heavier denser grain products which would actually perpetuate the need to slow down and CHEW.

**  Make no mistake these intolerances didn’t begin overnight.  This all started with industrialized agriculture.  Our grandparents were the first to eat a highly processed, high wheat and gluten diet.  It has snowballed from there.  In the 1930s Francis Pottanger ran experiments on cats over 10 years and found that when he fed them the cat equivalent of McDonalds they got sick. He found the illnesses (including infertility and the same degenerative diseases we’re now seeing in humans) took several generations to kick in. And that it took four generations again of being fed good food for normal health to be restored.

** A study comparing the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people today found that the incidences of full-blown celiac disease has increased by 400 percent. Far more people have gluten sensitivity than you think. Celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people. But milder forms of gluten sensitivity/intolerance  are even more common and may affect up to 30% of the American population.

**  For years people  didn’t know they had gluten issues or attributed their health issues to all kinds of other things. The symptoms are so very varied.

** The damage gluten does in our guts also leads to other auto immune diseases and intolerances  which is why so many have autoimmune disorders and, in some, more than one. People with celiac disease are also more likely to have an autoimmune disorder. And people with an autoimmune disorder are more likely to be very sensitive to gluten…and so the cycle continues.

Add all this together. It’s a mess. A big, sticky, glutinous mess.

So back to our original question.  Are all these people going gluten-free just jumping on the latest food fad?  Or, is there something behind the movement?  While I do not believe all people have an outright gluten intolerance, I do believe that those that can still tolerate grains should rotate their grains often between lower gluten ancient grains like spelt, burghul, barley, and farro, as well as pepper grains such as quinoa, millet, and buckwheat into that rotation (eating those gluten-free grains more often), and even still, not eating grains every single day.

For those that do have a gluten-sensitivity there are great alternatives to glutinous grains such as the aforementioned quinoa and millet, and delicious alternatives for baking such as almond and other nut flours and coconut flour.  An example of alternative baking would be our Gluten-Free Lemon Cake, with almond flour instead of grain based flour.

Just remember, your body knows how to heal itself when given the proper tools.  Those tools are what you eat!

Wishing you peace and balance,