Gluten is a well-discussed topic within the health and nutrition discourse, and it seems like there hasn’t been a firm conclusion as to where and if gluten fits into a healthy diet.
Gluten has had a tough time over the years, as gluten is usually associated with bread and pasta, arguably the two most stigmatised foods in terms of diets.
We witnessed the rise of carb fear over the years - with films and tv shows reinforcing these fears. Whether or not it was used for comedic purposes, it still shows that fear of carbohydrates and gluten is deeply ingrained into pop culture and western culture.
Fear of Gluten
The fear of gluten societally happened gradually over time. The gluten-free movement pioneer William Davis blamed gluten for arthritis, asthma, multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. He also claims that even healthy grains are dangerous and that gluten threatens humanity.1
Even though extreme takes like this aren’t necessarily the consensus, there is still some level of fear surrounding gluten and carbohydrates.
This could be because it is such a vast area for discourse, as well as a plethora of individuals pushing the benefits of living gluten-free. Then, there are those demonising it as a clean-eating fad. This conflict of information and opinions can make it hard to know who to listen to.
Misconceptions Around Gluten
Gluten can cause a negative response in some people, the most well-known being those with coeliac disease. Those with coeliac only make up around 1% of the population. However, there is more than one reaction to gluten and wheat. These include:
- Coeliac Disease – An autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten
- Gluten Sensitivity - a clinical entity induced by gluten leading to intestinal and extra-intestinal symptoms that improve once the gluten-containing foods are removed from the diet
- Wheat Allergy – An allergy only specific to wheat, although there can be crossover symptoms between coeliac and gluten sensitivity. Those with wheat allergy risk anaphylaxis if they consume wheat.
While the severity of each differs and varies by the individual, they are all tied together by Gliadin - a protein found in gluten.
Those who switch over to a non-gluten diet often do so because they report the following symptoms:2
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating or gas
- Brain fog or trouble concentrating
- Diarrhoea or constipation
On the other hand, the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome are as follows:3
- constipation or bloating
- nutritional deficiencies
- difficulty concentrating
- skin problems, such as acne, rashes, or eczema
- joint pain
This calls to question whether or not some people seeking to cut out gluten have a leaky gut or a gut that needs healing.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition attributed to the mucus lining of the intestines. Gaps in the intestinal walls allow bacteria and other toxins into the bloodstream, resulting in a host of issues, including gut inflammation.4
Those who feel intolerant to gluten may just have an unhealthy gut. The good news is that both of these issues have been researched extensively, and both can be lessened and healed by dietary changes and probiotic supplementation.
Studies have shown that probiotics can improve the health of the mucosal barrier of the gut. Those who took probiotics decreased markers of intestinal permeability compared to those who took a placebo.5
Probiotics and Coeliac
Probiotics and their efficacy in helping with coeliac disease are still in their early stages, and more research needs to be carried out. However, the research so far looks promising.
So far, studies have shown that probiotics can potentially alleviate symptoms in untreated coeliac disease as they produce an increase in immune system changes.6
So, it’s definitely worth consulting your doctor and looking into whether you possibly have a sensitivity, coeliac or an unhealthy gut.
Benefits Of Gluten
With all the hype around gluten-free products and diet articles, it has seemingly been forgotten that gluten does actually have benefits. These can include:
Lowered Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes
A long-term study was conducted by the American Heart Association that went on for over 30 years. Interestingly, those who consumed higher amounts of gluten had the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes, which was 13 per cent lower than the group who consumed the least amount of gluten.7
Reduced Risk When Exposed To Toxic Heavy Metals
A study researched the blood of 11,353 people, and 55 had coeliac disease. The findings concluded that people who described their diet as gluten-free had higher levels of mercury, lead and cadmium in their blood compared to those with a varied diet with the inclusion of gluten.8
Reduced Risk Of Heart Disease
Another long-term study by the Harvard School of Public Health analysed the data on the dietary history of over 100,000 people over 25 years. In the follow-up, over 6,000 cases of heart disease were found.
However, the individuals with the highest gluten intake had lower heart disease rates than those with little to no gluten in their diet.9
Gluten is hard to digest, but most of the highly palatable foods we crave contain gluten - such as chewy sourdough, focaccia, pasta, noodles, pitta bread, and pizza.
If you have a healthy gut, you will have little to no issue indulging in these foods. Some report symptoms similar to gluten sensitivity and immediately cut it out of the diet. Unless a doctor recommends you remove gluten from your diet, it’s worth looking into your gut health to enjoy a varied diet.
Myths Around Gluten-Free Products
It’s not just those who believe they have gluten sensitivity that is moving to a gluten-free diet. Consumer surveys have established that people select gluten-free products for one of three reasons, “digestive health”, “no reason”, and “healthier option”10
The majority of these are not proven factual. As most gluten-free products are highly processed, adding them to your diet is little to no benefit.
Most of these products also have a higher glycaemic index than those without, which could be why studies have shown that those on a gluten-free diet are at a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome.11
Healing The Gut
The problem with the elimination and restrictive diets is that they never seem to address the root problem, which is mostly gut health. Whether leaky gut or an imbalance in bacteria - switching to another radical diet can be equally damaging.
An example of this diet switch is not being able to comfortably digest gluten, bread, certain vegetables, leafy greens, or legumes and then cutting them out of your diet and eating nothing but red meat, aptly named the carnivore diet. You may feel great, and your digestive health could improve.
Really, doing this is almost the same as having a bad leg, never walking again and thinking your leg feels much better. The problem has not been addressed; you've just limited yourself to removing that particular issue without fixing the root cause of the pain.
It’s best to ensure your gut health is in check before making a dramatic change to your diet, such as cutting out gluten. In some cases, it doesn’t require much intervention at all.
It’s as simple for some people as taking a probiotic in the morning over a few weeks. Changes can also be made to the diet that heals the gut over a more extended period.
We live in an age where food directly relates to hype and fear. The rise of gluten-free products is brilliant for those with coeliac disease as their diets do not feel so restricted.
It's important to remember, however, that enforcing restrictions on your diet because a celebrity or a book author has oversold fears of gluten is not an excellent route to take.
At The Gut Co, we want to keep you informed and updated with nutrition and health news; however, we always recommend you speak to your doctor before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.
Related content: What is Coeliac Disease?
- Specter M. Against the Grain. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/grain. Published 2014.
- Clinic C. Gluten Intolerance: Symptoms, Test, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21622-gluten-intolerance. Published 2022. Accessed May 4, 2022.
- Eske J. Leaky gut syndrome: What it is, symptoms, and treatments. Medicalnewstoday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326117. Published 2019. Accessed May 4, 2022.
- Camilleri M. What is the leaky gut? Clinical considerations in humans. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. 2021;24(5):473-482. doi:10.1097/mco.0000000000000778
- Lamprecht M, Bogner S, Schippinger G et al. Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1). doi:10.11
- Smecuol E, Hwang H, Sugai E et al. Exploratory, Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Study on the Effects of Bifidobacterium infantis Natren Life Start Strain Super Strain in Active Celiac Disease. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2013;47(2):139-147. doi:
- American Heart Association. (2017, March 9). Low gluten diets linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 3, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170309120626.htm
- Raehsler S, Choung R, Marietta E, Murray J. Accumulation of Heavy Metals in People on a Gluten-Free Diet. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2018;16(2):244-251. doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2017.01.034
- Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G et al. Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017:j1892. doi:10.1136/bmj.j1892
- Reilly N. The Gluten-Free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad. J Pediatr. 2016;175:206-210. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.04.014
- Tortora R, Capone P, De Stefano G et al. Metabolic syndrome in patients with coeliac disease on a gluten-free diet. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 2015;41(4):352-359. doi:10.1111/apt.13062