Going Gluten Free

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Reader Dean says hello@:

You asked, so here’s my gluten-free story (safe for Celiacs to read):

I’m not a Celiac, but I do have Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory autoimmune disorder which often causes similar symptoms in the digestive tract. When I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s, a course of steroids followed by immunosuppressive drugs was enough to keep me in relatively good health.

Slowly, though, my symptoms returned. After two years, I was again underweight and anemic (a six-foot-tall male in my twenties, I weighed about 130 pounds at my lightest), with chronic, debilitating stomach pains and other symptoms which made my life very hard.

Friends who hadn’t seen me in months asked about my health as soon as they laid eyes on me. On more than one occasion, I experienced stomach cramps so severe I vomited until there was nothing left but bile. Occasionally, upon standing up too quickly, my vision would fade and my head would spin until I fell to the ground or found something to hold onto. These weren’t the kind of symptoms that can be alleviated through the placebo effect.

People suggested going gluten-free, but I resisted it until I was desperate for many of the reasons laid out in James Hamblin’s piece (much of which I still agree with). But it worked. The pain receded. My digestion improved. I gained 30 pounds, leaving me thin, but not skeletally so.

I asked my gastroenterologist about this, and they suggested I pursue a low-FODMAP diet, which restricts foods like wheat which contain sugars that ferment during digestion. It kept the worst of the symptoms at bay and, along with my medicine, kept my inflammation at a low level. Eventually, even that low level of inflammation caused enough complications that I was put on more powerful medicine, but I've never again been as sick as I was.

In the end, it wasn’t the gluten that bothered me; it was the wheat itself. I found I could drink gluten-free beer, for example, but only the kind that was made from sorghum or other wheat substitutes. Wheat beer with the gluten removed still made me sick, and trace amounts of gluten never bothered me at all. But despite the fact that I wasn’t a Celiac, the availability of gluten-free products was a huge boon for me.

I appreciate what you, James, and The Atlantic are trying to do by educating the public on these issues. There’s so much pseudoscience surrounding this topic that I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit that I prefer to avoid wheat. But to suggest, by omission or otherwise, that Celiacs are the only people who can benefit from the explosion of gluten-free products ignores the clinical and day-to-day experiences of a great number of people, and I think that’s worth mentioning.

This reader’s on the same page:

Credible sources place the percent of Americans with celiac as high as 1-in-35. But that understates the problem by ignoring people who are allergic to wheat but do not have celiac.

Since I was young my fingers swell (not subtly) when I eat wheat products, and it seems to be more likely to happen with products that are known to be high in gluten (like pizza). Yet I test negative for celiac.

Is the test imperfect? Am I allergic to wheat? I’ve no idea, but it is not a trivial matter. I’m afraid we are in another of those moments when experts think they know it all, while there is much more to be learned.

A reader in Bend, Oregon, is far from gluten-free but nevertheless provides some good, er, food for thought:

Some people have commented that the increased gluten sensitivity in recent decades is due to modern, hybrid wheat varieties, high processing, added gluten, and/or a move away from traditional bread dough fermentation. Michael Pollan’s view was summarized in The Huffington Post piece “Michael Pollan Wants You To Eat Gluten”:

Pollan goes on to say that some people would do well to experiment with fermentation. More specifically, he thinks fermented sourdough is a smart alternative for a healthy gut. Fermented foods in general have been found to be beneficial for gut health, but sourdough bread has a more specific benefit, according to Pollan.

“[The] tradition of fermenting flour with sourdough breaks down the peptides in gluten that give people trouble,” he said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard from lots of people that when they eat properly fermented bread, they can tolerate it.”

There is some emerging research to support Pollan’s perspective: A 2008 study fed subjects with gluten intolerances either sourdough or regular bread. Similarly, a very small 2012 study fed sourdough to participants with celiac, finding few to no physical side effects.

Some background from The New Yorker:

There are essentially two ways to turn flour into bread. The first is the way it was done for most of human history: let the flour absorb as much water as possible and give it time to ferment, a process that allows yeast and bacteria to activate the dough. Kneading then binds the two proteins that come together to form gluten.

Most of the bread consumed in the United States is made the other way: in place of hydration, fermentation, and kneading, manufacturers save time by relying on artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to ram together the essential proteins that form gluten. . . . Most bakers, even those who would never go near an industrial mixing machine, include an additive called vital wheat gluten to strengthen the dough and to help the loaf rise.

I’m lucky; I can eat plenty of gluten and stay extremely healthy. I even eat seitan sometimes, which is pure wheat gluten. Yum.

He’s a braver man than I.