Gluten-Free Diet: Fad or Necessity?

Naturopathic medicine is all about treating the cause of disease.  One of the fundamental determining factors as to what level of health or disease a person reaches is their daily nutrition choices.  This is a fact that is almost completely ignored in conventional medicine and hence why the healthcare system has gotten so expensive and inefficient.  The Standard American Diet (aka SAD) is composed mostly of “beige” foods and includes a lot of sandwiches, pasta, pizza, baked goods and other gluten-containing products.  These foods are nutrition-poor and calorie-dense and consumption of them often leads to being overweight and malnourished at the same time.

My own story

While living on the West Coast and working towards completing my pre-requisite curriculum before entering medical school, I worked on weekends selling bread and pastries at farmer’s markets.  Though the bakery I worked for produced good quality, organic breads without preservatives, I discovered during this time period how inflammatory large doses of gluten can be.  Because money was tight, I mostly lived on free day-old bread from the bakery.  Before too long I was at the heaviest weight I have ever been, had developed significant digestive issues and was covered in eczema from head to toe.  Also, I was miserable mentally and emotionally.  Because I was not yet thinking with my holistic brain and because my poor health developed a little at a time, I of course did not understand the culprit behind my inflammatory state.

When I started at Bastyr University, one of my first stops was at the University Health Center to investigate the cause behind my perpetual itchy eczema.  The student clinicians that were treating me immediately took me off of gluten and started on a gut-repair treatment plan.  After two months the eczema had resolved completely and now flares only when I can’t manage stress appropriately.  And, since doing the gut-repair work and because I eat preferentially gluten free, I can now tolerate small amounts of gluten in whole-foods form.

To be clear, going gluten free was not an easy transition for me, nor is it for anyone.  I am from a large Italian family that puts on a traditional Italian meal every Sunday, including the pasta, bread, breaded cutlets, etc…  Within this culture, food is love and rejection of food requires a lot of explaining and fixing hurt feelings.  I had to be clear with my family that going gluten-free was something non-negotiable that I needed to do for my health.  My family is also a medical family (my step-father is an MD and my mother is his head nurse) and once my eczema went away, they started to pay attention.

Why is wheat gluten so bad for us?

Two reasons, both man-made:

1)      Within the United States, wheat is a genetically-modified food, meaning that the DNA has been altered and that our bodies no longer recognize it as “food” but rather as an “invader” and something that needs to be attacked.  The immune system in the gut becomes sensitized to wheat and turns on an inflammatory cascade that results in damage to the intestinal tissue, making digestion and absorption of any food more difficult.

2)      The genetic-modification of wheat was for the purpose of increasing the gluten content in order to make bread products softer, more chewy, etc… this gluten-dense food contains long polysaccharide chains that are very difficult to digest.  Fibers that cannot be digested by our intestines are then digested by undesirable types of bacteria that are present in trace amounts along our digestive tract.  Consumption of gluten often leads to bloating in our lower intestinal tracts because undesirable bacteria are having a field day fermenting these long fibers and producing carbon-dioxide gas as a byproduct.  This reaction encourages growth of pathogenic bacteria, which then complicate the immune system at large.

What can I do?

Should you go gluten-free?  Yes, but not in the conventional sense.  I have often been told by patients that they can’t “afford” a gluten-free diet.  This is because the gluten free breads, bagels, pastas and crackers are more expensive than their gluten-ridden counterparts.  I am not an advocate of just substituting glutinous processed foods for gluten-free processed foods.  Both are not good for you.  What I advocate is a whole-foods based diet, which automatically excludes processed foods including refined carbohydrates.  What a whole-foods based diet does include are whole-foods forms of gluten-containing grains such as oats, wheat berries, faro, spelt and others.  As a side note, if you are experiencing symptoms along your GI tract or have any sort of auto-immune disease or undiagnosed inflammation, you will need a specialized nutrition plan that should be designed according to your specific needs.

If you are curious about food sensitivities or allergies, you can measure antibodies to specific foods through blood or saliva testing.  A test like this will tell you whether or not your body is “sensitized” to common food allergens, so that you can avoid them while you are healing.

For further info or to schedule a complementary 15-minute consultation with Dr. Corrie, feel free to contact New England Naturopathic Health at 873-9380 or [email protected].