There has been a lot of talk and press in the last couple of years about gluten sensitivity, and it’s been a huge growth market in food items as people have made the choice to go gluten-free and reported improvements in their general health and well-being. The case for this gluten sensitivity was bolstered by one study that seemed to indicate that this sensitivity did in fact exist.
Now Gluten sensitivity we seem to have hit the same dietary speed bump. The same researcher who did the original report that seemed to have shown that gluten sensitivity exists has now done some larger, better controlled studies, and the results of those indicate pretty clearly that it doesn’t. In these studies people who were self-diagnosed as gluten sensitive were put on various diets in a controlled manner: regular gluten, gluten-free and a diet that controlled for something known as FODMAPS which are another dietary carbohydrate that some people can have sensitivity to and which are often seen in foods with gluten.
The results were pretty clear: no differences between the diets. Some people did better or worse on each, and it seemed tied to diets they thought were the ones with gluten in it. In other words, we had differences based on the placebo effect and it’s evil twin, the “nocebo” effect.
“In contrast to our first study … we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten,” Gibson wrote in the paper. A third, larger study published this month has confirmed the findings.
The reality? Some people’s tummies are more sensitive than others, and placebo effect, stress and other factors can have a big impact on how people’s biology reacts. I, for instance, have found out the hard way I can’t tolerate really spicy foods as well as I did when I was 25. So this first study comes out, the self-professed experts see an opportunity and start pushing it, people who are stressed out and who’s systems are sensitive anyway latch onto it as a reason, and boom, we have a food fad.
I am always skeptical when the public picks up on something and it gets a lot of traction and publicity ahead of good science, because too often the science ends up not backing it up. Fad diets in America are legion and we seem to bounce from one to the next looking for some magic solution to the fact that we eat badly and too much for our own goods. In the 70’s and 80’s carbs were the solution and fats were evil while eggs were the devil incarnate. Today, that’s all been completely disproven. Remember Atkins? Today the hot fad is Paleo Tomorrow it’ll be something else. The fact is, these fads offer easy solutions and fade away when people realize that they really don’t solve it and they really aren’t easy. You need to be skeptical of anything with a big public PR/Marketing presence but without the hard science behind it.
The fact is, getting to the bottom of these things is hard. I’ve been chasing something that causes, um, dietary distress, for a couple of years now. I know it’s something I’m eating occasionally but I haven’t yet isolated it. I well understand why people want to find something — relatively — easy like dumping gluten out of their diets to solve some of these problems, but the solution is rarely that easy. There are too many variables.
Did you drop gluten and feel better? Great? But did that happen because you thought it should and the placebo factor took over? Or because you made some changes in your diet and improved it overall as part of this? Or removed some other thing along the way that you happened to be sensitive to?
If you feel better, it doesn’t really matter why — that’s what matters. But at the same time it’s important we don’t jump to conclusions and we make sure we deal with the science behind the problem and not the assumptions about them. Self-diagnosis is a risky business; you rarely get to the root of the problem, and you may end up masking some larger, more serious problem (like colon cancer) by walking down this path and feeling like it’s solved things.
On the other hand, even if gluten has been vindicated, it still seems to be a good idea to watch your carbs in general. One new study makes a link between depression and refined carbs. I think the article goes a bit hyperbolic beyond the scope of the study, but I think the core message rings true: our push in previous decades away from fats to a high carb diet has been the core of a massive number of problems, from the radical jump in diabetes and obesity to this new link to depression and mental health issues. It’s important we get back to a healthier and balanced diet where we are using more complex carbohydrates and reasonable fat and protein in balance, and away from highly refined and low value carbohydrates.
Getting a straight answer to the questions can be tough. My bottom line: it can be hard, but follow the science. The more people are trying to make money teaching you the solution, the more you should be skeptical. The more we learn about this, the more I think the solution is to limit highly-processed foods, moderate refined carbohydrates and sugars, and eat things in balanced. I tried to eat a protein heavy diet because as a diabetic I have to manage my carbs, but in reality, there’s only so much deli-sliced turkey I can face so I’m well aware how tough it can be and in my situation, both tree nuts and peanuts are off the menu so my options are even more limited.
But go for whole grains, go for foods that are closer to the farmer than the factory where you can, and learn to read an ingredient list and when making choices, choose products with lists that sound like they were grown and not created — the more ingredients you can’t pronounce, the more you should consider some other product. And more than anything else, focus on the slow, hard job of fixing your diet and eating habits and not on thinking the next diet hack will be the one that solves your problem. The problem is, it’s hard to sell a paperback book promotion that idea…