Lecter. Vader. Joker. Krueger. Myers. Gluten.
All of these are some of the scariest names in history.
In recent years, somehow gluten has become one of the most fearsome but also confusing words known to man. In 2013, under the “what is…” category for google searches, “what is gluten?” came out at number 5. Unsurprisingly, “What is twerking?” took the top spot.
What is surprising is that in the diet category, there was no mention of gluten whatsoever. However, “Paleo Diet” came in at number one, followed by “Juice Cleanse” at number 2, “Ketogenic Diet” at number 5, and “Fruititarian Diet” at number 8 – all of which contain no gluten whatsoever (or at least aim to avoid it at all costs).
So, what is this pesky little phenomenon that seems to crop up everywhere? And do we really need to spend so much time worrying about it or is it all just a bit of hullaballoo? Let’s take a look and find out.
What exactly is gluten?
I guess before talking about whether it’s good or bad for us, we should probably get into what exactly gluten is.
Gluten is actually a protein found most commonly found in wheat but is also a part of other grains of a similar type. In fact, around 80% of the protein in wheat and other gluten-containing grains is from gluten. When baked, gluten helps the bread to rise and develop that lovely elasticity when you pull it apart. That’s why you can often tell the difference between regular products and their gluten-free alternatives which tend to be a little harder. These groups of proteins all come together when cooked to form gluten-protein complexes, so it’s not actually one single molecule.
Wheat glutens contains the proteins “glutenins” and “gliadins”, the second of which is responsible for most of the issues people experience if they have a gluten intolerance.
Why has gluten got such a bad rep?
As with almost anything, certain people have developed intolerances to certain gluten proteins which cause a flare up of the immune system. A lot of the research we currently have on gluten is centred around those with celiac disease (CD). Celiac disease is an autoimmune system where the intestines can become damaged after an individual consumes a gluten-containing product. If you do have celiac, then you need to avoid gluten at all costs as those who leave the disease to go untreated can eventually experience a variety of serious health problems, including a higher risk of death.
Now, there’s a new body of research suggesting that some people have what’s being labelled as “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” or (NCGS). This refers to those who don’t have a serious or life-threatening relationship to gluten, but it can cause them to develop IBS or other stomach issues such as gas, pain, or sickness. Each condition is categorised by the amount of damage to the intestinal wall, the eventual severity of the consequences, and whether there are any autoimmune issues.
However, there are some people who can believe that they have a gluten problem and tend to develop issues simply because of this belief opposed to any biological events. Examine.com report that:
“Researchers examining self-diagnosis of gluten sensitivity suggest that many people with NCGS do not actually display any sensitivity and the symptoms may be the result of discussions related to gluten causing intestinal problems, also known as a 'nocebo' effect.”
Essentially, if you suspect you have a problem with gluten, then it’s important to get it checked out. If your doctor tells you that you have CD, then avoid gluten at all costs. If there doesn’t seem to be a problem, then you might either be over-thinking it, there’s another problem at hand or you just need to limit your gluten consumption.
Can cutting out gluten help me to lose weight?
Many people nowadays seem to believe that switching to a gluten-free diet will not only improve their health, but also help them to drop a large amount of fat. The reason for this tends to be that the human body simply hasn’t had enough time to evolve to a point where it can handle gluten, leaving us all a little insensitive and cutting our life expectancy.
Wheat was first introduced to humans around nine and a half thousand years ago, originating in the Mediterranean region when humans developed into settlers opposed to hunter-gatherers. In the paleo-sphere, the idea is that this time hasn’t been long enough in the grand scheme of things for the body to develop a tolerance for gluten. We couldn’t eat wheat before and therefore, our body would need to evolve in order to handle it. This lack of evolution is what can cause fat gain among a variety of other issues.
In 2013, there was the first controlled study which directly looked at the effects of wheat gluten on mice. The researchers concluded that the data supports “the beneficial effects of gluten-free diets in reducing adiposity (fat) gain, inflammation and insulin resistance”. However, there was no explanation between the intake of gluten and the eventual results. This is important as without knowing exactly how, you can’t label something as evil. It would be a bit like me seeing you walk into a building and then smoke coming out the window. It might look like you started the fire, but without clear-cut evidence, there’s no reason that something else isn’t at play.
In 2017, there was a follow-up study which aimed to clear up this link. The researchers took 175 eight-week-old male mice and divided them into four groups each assigned with a different diet.
- Control diet (CD)
- Control diet with 4.5% of wheat gluten (CD-G)
- A high-fat diet aimed to cause obesity (HFD)
- A high-fat diet with 4.5% of wheat gluten (HFD-G)
The researchers found that both of the groups which ate gluten showed a higher increase in bodyweight than their gluten-free counterparts despite the match of calories. The gluten-diets even showed higher amounts of visceral and subcutaneous fat increase as well as lower oxygen consumption when fasted and lower energy expenditure.
On the surface, this looks like some pretty scary stuff. I bet you’re already regretting that gluten-laden sandwich you had for lunch. Yet, it’s important to stress that once again the researchers couldn’t explain the link between the gluten and the eventual fat gain. They were also using mice opposed to humans which does provide obvious limitations. It’s not that these studies are to be ignored by any means, but they should be taken with a pinch of salt. At this point, we’re definitely not close to being able to say gluten specifically causes weight gain – especially when calorie intake is accounted for. At the end of the day, calories in v. calories out is the main overriding factor of weight loss and weight gain. Lastly, the dose of gluten which was fed to the mice would be like eating over 15 slices of whole wheat bread per day. Unless you’re really into your jam on toast, I can’t see anyone coming anywhere near this.
The Bottom Line
Basically, if you don’t have a bad relationship with gluten, then there’s nothing conclusive to say that you need to cut it out. Although, if you do trial cutting out gluten and end up feeling better, then stick with it. The easiest way to see if you have a problem with something is to take it out of your diet for a prolonged period and then enter it back in. If problems come up, then you most likely have some form of sensitivity. If nothing happens, then it’s nothing to worry about. However, there’s no reason to cut anything else simply because you know other people are. Nutrition is extremely individual and just because your friend might think gluten is the enemy, doesn’t mean you need to.