Vail Science of Food column: Is a gluten-free diet right for you?
Special to the Daily
Good ol’ Gluten
What: Workshop with Dr. Lisa Julian
When: 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10
Where: Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health, 310 E. Main St., Frisco
Cost: $20. Reservations required. Call 970-401-2071.
More information: Visit elevatedyogacolorado.com/events-workshops
Everyone is talking about gluten and going gluten-free. What is all this gluten hype about? And is going gluten-free right for you? Let’s first start off by discussing what exactly gluten is on the molecular level and what it does inside the body.
What is gluten?
Gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, is a large family of proteins, not a single entity. Gluten proteins are broken down in our bodies into smaller proteins and peptides, such as the gliadins, that can cause immune and inflammatory responses in the body, in part due to their relatively long half-life. The gliadin proteins — rich in amino acids proline and glutamine, which aid in their structural stability — are currently recognized as the principal toxic component of the gluten protein family.
Recall that all proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids and are the cellular machinery responsible for carrying out all the functions in our bodies to maintain us as a whole. Some exogenous proteins that enter the body, such as the glutens and gliadins, have the potential to react with these proteins inside the body, especially in the immune system, and they can elicit an immune and/or inflammatory response. Science is just beginning to understand the role our guts — and the bacteria living in our guts — play in the overall immune system, but we know now that the foods we eat can either nourish this aspect of health and immunity or destroy it.
EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT
Gluten can affect people in different ways. Celiac disease is at one extreme end of the spectrum and only about 1 percent of the population have it, but many experience a sensitivity to gluten that may manifest in physical symptoms such as bloating, severe cramping and constipation. The elastic-like physical properties of gluten (why your French baguette is so chewy and delicious) often lead to constipation, inflammation and slower movement of food because it breaks down more slowly in the gut, whereas foods that contain more fiber, as in fruits and vegetables, soften the stool and facilitate movement of food through the digestive tract.
Even those who may not have an underlying sensitivity to gluten may experience some of these effects because we simply eat way too much wheat and gluten food products or food-like substances in our country. Too much of something is a lack of something else, and here that lack of something is fresh fruits and vegetables, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant rich foods.
So back to the question: Should you go gluten-free? If you have celiac disease, even the smallest amount of gluten can cause a devastating auto-immune response, so it is imperative to steer clear of all gluten. Celiac disease is a very specific auto-immune disease. In individuals with celiac disease, gluten induces an inflammatory response in the intestine, leading to destruction of the villus structure in the gut that also aids in the absorption of nutrients into the body. The body recognizes gliadin as dangerous and begins to destroy the small intestine in an attempt to attack and rid the body of this substance.
However, if you have a gluten sensitivity or desire to create a lower inflammatory environment in the gut (those with colitis, inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer), then a low-gluten diet is what I suggest, and this is what I practice for myself. It is not necessary to be completely gluten-free; in fact, this may actually create an allergy or sensitivity later in life, so avoid strict and trendy gluten-free diets and weight-loss strategies.
Individuals like me who are not outright celiac but do have a gluten sensitivity experience what is termed “leaky gut,” where the tight junctions of the epithelial cells that line the intestine and serve as a protective barrier break apart. This intestinal permeability allows potential toxins, proteins (including gliadin), undigested food, microbes and antibodies to escape and enter the bloodstream and can cause inflammation and potential harm to other parts of the body. This is even being linked to certain mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism.
Western medicine cannot diagnose individuals who are gluten-sensitive; only true celiacs have the diagnostic tools in the form of an antibody test followed by biopsy of the small intestine. If you think you are experiencing a gluten sensitivity, do the experiment for yourself. First, become more aware of the wheat and gluten present in your diet. Then, remove most of the gluten from your diet for at least several weeks, fill it with fruits, vegetables and nutritious non-gluten grains, and observe how you feel; observe your bowel movements, your energy level, your appetite and your mood.
Try eating quinoa, lentils, rice and organic corn and oats as wheat replacements. Avoid new gluten-free food products and experiment with whole foods instead. For example, spaghetti squash is now in season, and this is a wonderful substitute for wheat noodles in your favorite traditional pasta dish. I found that if I do indulge in fresh breads and pastas, eating slowly and mindfully allows time for the gluten to break down and prevents most of the undesirable symptoms of gluten intolerance. You know your body best. Do food experiments and listen to your body; it will tell you what it needs and how much good ol’ gluten is right for you.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry — what she calls the “molecules of life” — and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-401-2071. For more information about services offered at her studio, visit http://www.elevatedyogacolorado.com.