The Harm in Blindly ‘Going Gluten Free,' Cont'd

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

Jim Hamblin has a new piece up for Celiac-Disease Awareness Month. Money quote:

[Avoiding gluten] has not been shown (in placebo-controlled studies) to benefit people who do not have the disease. Celiac disease is known to affect about one percent of people. Yet in a global survey of 30,000 people last year, fully 21 percent said that “gluten free” was a “very important” characteristic in their food choices. Among Millennials, the number is closer to one in three. The tendency to “avoid gluten” persists across socioeconomic strata, in households earning more than $75,000 just the same as those earning less than $30,000, and almost evenly among educational attainment. The most common justification for doing so: “no reason.”

He goes on to detail the downsides of gluten-free replica products. A reader responds with a solid bit of advice:

As someone who has had a lifelong gluten allergy (and gave it to two of my three kids), the increased “trendiness” is a mixed bag. Yes, it mean more choices, but it also means that people think my disease is just a trendy lifestyle choice and not a real thing. My general recommendation is not to use too many wheat substitutes. Instead of a gluten-free sandwich, have a salad or meat and veg. Instead of beer, have wine or hard liquor.

One of my part-time jobs right out of college, while interning and waiting tables, was doing research for a book that my roommate and his celiac-suffering business partner were putting together to help people travel and dine out gluten free. This was late 2004, and I had never heard of gluten, nor had any peers I talked to about the research gig. So over the past decade it’s been remarkable to see how rapidly and widespread “gluten free” has become. Now my best friend is GF, for dermatological reasons, as is my mother, who swears that her GF diet has snuffed out some mild health problems—and she’s been a nurse for 40 years, so she’s very science- and health-oriented. Here’s another gluten-free reader who works in the sciences:

I work in human research. Getting people to keep accurate records of what they eat, or to maintain a specific diet for a long enough time without keeping them in a lab environment 24/7 is incredibly difficult if not impossible. I am gluten-free due to promising science on Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (I am not celiac). If you have a problem linked to inflammation, it makes sense to see if going gluten-free can reduce that inflammation.

In the future, as more and more studies are done, they may find the culprit is other than gluten, or that gluten without other natural enzymes in food that’s more alive or containing more of the plants original components might be healthier.

As an N of 1, if I eat gluten now, I get depressed the next day. I don’t seem to have any other negative symptoms as others with celiac do. There is no other “cure” for Hashimotos, but I tend to have fewer symptoms of Hashimotos (lethargy, weight gain, skin issues) when I remain gluten free. I went off it for a while, started eating gluten again, and gained 20 lbs. But this might be also attributable to the fact that more foods were available (i.e. a whole pan of brownies).

I am realistic and yet still making the best choice for myself. I can understand if others are concerned it’s a harmful fad, but there also might actually be something to it, and so I don’t think it should be readily dismissed either.

Neither does this reader:

I recall Nobel prize winner Dr. Barry Marshall commenting that half of what is taught in academic gastroenterology is flat wrong. [CB note: I couldn’t quickly find that quote, but here’s a Kathryn Schulz interview with Marshall about how he was right about ulcers when everyone else was wrong.] So it was not surprising to find see solid research in the last few weeks showing that common reflux medications, proton pump inhibitors, pushed so hard by gastroenterologists, are strongly linked to dementia and cardiac dysfunction. [CB: Here’s a recent report along those lines.]

I have been gluten free for a dozen years. I am not celiac, don’t even have the DNA for it. Prior to going gluten free, which was against gastroenterologists advice, I suffered from chronic severe reflux and GI problems daily and was becoming overweight. Within months after going strictly gluten free, every trace of reflux and GI distress disappeared and over 12 years have never returned. Within six months of going gluten free, I lost the 35 excess pounds I was carrying and have stayed at my ideal weight ever since.

My toughest problem in going gluten free was weaning myself off the proton pump inhibitors that GI docs had pushed on me. What they failed to tell me is that if you start these meds and go off them, you get rebound hyper-acidity at double your pre-med levels, and that lasts a couple of months. Great for pharma marketers. I used an Internet protocol from Jacob Teitelbaum MD to wean myself off PPIs in a couple of months. Never a hint of reflux since, in a dozen years.

I wonder what is motivating the recent quasi-academic push back against gluten-free living? So many such as myself have found gluten-free living to resolve a host of problems even though not celiac. I wonder if the financial interests involved are pushing back. But then I recall Hanlon's razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is explained by incompetence.”

I know through experience that GF people love to talk about going gluten free, so if you’d like to sound off on the subject, drop us an email. Update from a reader with some quick advice:

To those out there (like myself) who are gluten free to decrease inflammation, I caution you about the risk of added sugar in products labeled as GF. What has helped me is to not eat processed GF foods as much as possible and focus on fruits, veggies, nuts, good fats and protein. It is not easy because I often feel deprived. Hence my new focus on detoxing myself off the sugar as much as I can without adding another feeling of deprivation. Sigh.