Hello science lovers!
I have received my first commission to address the pseudoscience behind the gluten-free craze, but I've decided to expand it a bit to include fad diets. After all, unless it's for an actual gluten intolerance, a gluten-free diet is actually a fad diet.
Gluten is a protein found in grains, particularly in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, etc. It makes dough elastic and helps it rise - when yeast is added to bread dough, it produces carbon dioxide, which becomes trapped in the network of gluten proteins. It is what makes bread so lovely; I had a colleague who with coeliac disease, and she always said she missed the gooey fluffiness of regular bread most of all.
Anyway, the people who are intolerant to gluten typically have some kind of allergy to it, or they suffer from coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine in which exposure to gliadin (a gluten protein) causes an inflammatory response in the small intestine, compromising nutrient absorption. The only cure for coeliac disease is sticking to a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products like bread and beer are often made using non-grain based foods like rice. The symptoms of coeliac disease include bloating, diarrhea, cramps, abdominal pain, weight loss, and a long-term increased risk of gastrointestinal disease. Untreated or undiagnosed coeliac disease can led to a number of health problems, including neurological complications, heart disease, diabetes, and cancers.
But somewhere along the line, people started thinking that all of these health problems were associated with gluten consumption, not coeliac disease. Lots of people on the low-carb diet bandwagon are the ones crying foul over gluten. Lots of people think that they have some kind of gluten intolerance, or that gluten is evil, because they feel better on a gluten-free diet. But there is little scientific evidence to support this, and it typically comes down to the types of foods that are being consumed. Foods that contain gluten, like bread, pasta, crackers, etc. are often processed and contain sugars. By avoiding such foods and replacing them with nutrient-dense whole foods, it makes sense that you would feel better. It doesn't mean that gluten will kill you. While coeliac disease is generally underdiagnosed, gluten intolerance and wheat allergy are generally overdiagnosed. Unnecessary elimination of foods through adherence to fad diets has been found responsible for cases of acute protein energy malnutrition (PEM) in North American children. Considering that this is a problem that typically occurs in areas of famine, that's kind of a big deal! And remember when Atkins was popular? Turns out that a high protein, high fat, low carb diet can actually be rough on your heart.
Then there's the assumption that going gluten-free helps you lose weight, but in reality it can cause weight gain. If you're not switching to whole foods, but instead simply switching to gluten-free flours, which are higher in in carbs and calories, then you may not find yourself losing weight. Gluten-free baking generally has more fat in it to compensate for no gluten. Gluten-free diets based on packaged foods are often low in fiber and don't have the folic acid, calcium, and vitamin fortifications that we generally get from consuming wheat products. That's why as a fad, the gluten-free craze is potentially harmful, because quick-fix weight loss schemes typically involve the consumption of a fad product (in this case gluten-free products) rather than adherence to a basic, healthier diet.
Gluten is being blamed for a huge amount of health problems, from obesity to diabetes, even cancer. This has led the mainstream public to believe gluten is this "silent killer", and media outlets are capitalizing on this and sensationalizing the stories to get traffic or sell newspapers. That link I just gave you? It's for an article written by a doctor talking about how eating gluten can kill you from some big scientific studies. Oh no, gluten! What I don't know might kill me! (not meant to be snarky, this is the actual title of the article). But each of those studies was conducted on participants with coeliac disease. Here's the main point (in bold, just so you don't miss it): all of these health risks from eating gluten are associated with eating gluten if you are actually medically gluten-intolerant! So yes, people who suffer from coeliac disease can develop diabetes or heart problems or IBS or cancer or what have you, if they eat gluten, and these risks are increased in people who don't know they have coeliac disease or are not being treated for it. But average not-gluten-intolerant Joe? You're fine!
I found this quote from an article in the National Post, sent to me by my friend and colleague over at The Rhizome journal of permaculture design, and I think it genuinely sums up what it is about fad diets that I find so annoying:
This post was not intended to shame anyone for their food choices. If you genuinely feel better on a gluten-free diet, that's fantastic! But that doesn't mean that there's any science behind your claims or that any scientific evidence supports gluten-free diets and weight loss of overall health. I have to say that the one good thing that has come out of the gluten-free craze is that now gluten-free foods are easier to find for my gluten-intolerant friends.