Gluten-Free Diets: Always the Best Choice?

Gluten-Free Diets: Always the Best Choice?
Gluten-Free Diets: Always the Best Choice?

Are the gluten free diet gurus on to something? Would we all be better off by eliminating this plant-based protein from our diets?

As a restaurateur, committed vegan and avid seeker of scientific truth, I have three reasons to research these questions!

Although my Fruitive restaurant chain has always been plant-based, it’s not gluten free. We have gluten free options, but our menu has offered some form of gluten from the beginning.

One day, a regular customer texted me to ask if we’d possibly mixed up the noodles in his soup. It was the same soup he always orders for lunch. But by the time he returned to his office, his stomach was aching.

He isn’t merely gluten-sensitive; he has celiac disease. His call was a serious attempt to trace where he might have been exposed to gluten.

This customer understands Fruitive isn’t entirely gluten free. He accepts that our whole-grain bread might slightly contaminate other food from the same kitchen.  

But he wondered if his soup’s noodles might have contained gluten. Alarmed by his text, I quickly called the Fruitive manager.

She assured me that all the kitchen’s noodles were gluten free. A mix-up wasn’t possible.

I asked her to take pictures of the bag of noodles and its label to text our customer. He responded that something else could have caused his stomachache.

On another occasion, this customer shared that celiac forces him to limit dining out. He patronizes just a few restaurants, where he knows exactly what’s on the menu and trusts the staff.

He’s not alone. About 1 in 100 people share his genetic disorder. Stomachaches, however, aren’t their biggest concern.

For a celiac sufferer, too much gluten can be deadly. Inflammatory responses to gluten have been linked to small-bowel T-cell lymphoma.

When gluten poses such a clear danger for some people, why would I allow it on our menu?

Because …

Some Healthy Plant-based Foods Aren’t Gluten Free

You’ll find gluten in:

  • wheat
  • wheat derivatives such as spelt or wheatberries
  • rye
  • barley

 

Even so, being gluten tolerant doesn’t guarantee you can eat these grains. Having a wheat allergy or “extra-intestinal symptoms” including:

  • joint or muscle pain
  • leg or arm numbness
  • neurologic symptoms like an altered mental state
  • loss of balance or muscle control
  • rash

 

can also put them off-limits.

But as Dr. Will Bulsiewicz wrote in Fiber Fueled, his groundbreaking book on gut health, anyone else who can eat these gluten-rich grains should. 

The Research

Dr. Will bases this advice on reams of clinical research.

In one double-blind placebo study, Norwegian researchers randomly assigned the gluten-avoiding participants to three groups. Each ate one of the following:

  • Muesli bar containing gluten
  • Muesli bar contains fructans
  • Muesli bar with no added ingredients.

 

As in all double-blind placebo trials, neither the participants nor the researchers administering the muesli bars knew which bar was which.

The results? The group with gluten had 40% fewer GI symptoms than either of the other groups.

Dr. Will B. says of another study that when healthy subjects spent a month on a gluten free diet, their beneficial  F. Prausnitzii, Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium gut bacteria all declined.

At the same time, their colonies of the harmful  E. coli and Enterobacteriaceae microorganisms increased.

Gluten Free Doesn’t Mean Heart Healthy

So going gluten free by avoiding healthy whole grains allowed their harmful gut microorganisms to overrun their good ones. 

The worrisome thing? Such a gut imbalance may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A third study, headed by Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl of Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, concluded:

“… the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk.

 The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.”

Skipping these three whole grains has another downside: They’re good sources of fiber, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium.

In other words, wheat, barley, and rye belong in a healthy plant-based diet.

Judge Your Gluten Tolerance: Listen to Your Body

A severe adverse reaction to these grains could indicate a severe condition such as celiac disease. It warrants contacting a qualified health professional immediately and asking about:

  • genetic testing for HLA-DQ2 or DQ8
  • An upper endoscopy with biopsies of the small intestine.

 

If eating these grains only gives you minor indigestion, I suggest reading Fiber Fueled and considering Dr. B’s recommended steps for overcoming food sensitivities.

So, what have I learned about the wisdom of gluten free eating?

Anyone who suffers from gluten-related diseases has my word that I do my best to ensure their safety in my restaurants.

But I also hope anyone who tolerates whole grains keeps enjoying them – without giving the gluten free diet gurus a second thought! 

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