There’s been much controversy in the media lately about gluten, and whether gluten sensitivity is “real” or just a marketing gimmick by some food companies.
The common questions I get asked are:
- Is gluten sensitivity real?
- Does it affect some people or everyone?
- People ate wheat for thousands of years, what changed?
- What will eliminating gluten do for me?
- Can I have a “cheat” day?
I’m approaching this like I approach everything else:
- Does it affect my health and longevity?
- Does it affect my quality of life?
- Does it affect my physical performance?
- Does it affect my non-physical performance?
Here is what you need to know.
- Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat (and certain other grains, in lesser quantities).
- Gluten is what gives dough its elasticity: the more gluten in the dough, the more elastic it is, and the less flour you need to make bread, pizza, pasta, etc.
- Crossbreeding and genetic modification over the past 50 years have massively increased the gluten content of wheat, primarily for cost and texture purposes: more gluten means less wheat needed to produce products.
- Wheat starch is used as a stabilizer in a massive range of “processed” foods. This means that exposure to gluten in foods is not limited to “obvious” products like bread and pasta.
- Until a few decades ago, the only bread available was “fermented sourdough bread”. It’s the traditional way of making bread. The fermentation process breaks down the majority of the gluten. Breads today (including modern sourdough) are not fermented.
- Human beings cannot completely digest gluten. No human being can: we just do not have the necessary digestive enzymes to completely break it down.
- This was not a problem for humans throughout history because (i) the amount of gluten they ate was a fraction of what it is today and (ii) fermentation was a core preparation method for most wheat-based products, which breaks down the gluten before consumption.
- Celiac Disease is a condition affecting people extremely sensitive to gluten: the gluten molecules destroy the lining of the intestines, causing a wide range of problems, some of them serious.
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity is a condition which affects people sensitive to gluten but not to the extent of causing serious health issues.
- IMPORTANT: gluten sensitivity DOES NOT always mean digestive problems. Many (as much as 40-60%) of people diagnosed with gluten sensitivity suffer NO digestive symptoms.
- Gluten sensitivity can result in: digestive problems (but not always), a chronic low-level of inflammation, which in turn is related to: decline in brain function, joint pain, compromised immune system, longer recovery periods after exercise, etc.
A recent breakthrough in research with important implications
There was a recent study by a team of scientists from various prestigious US universities which demonstrated that ALL subjects (including those not diagnosed with gluten sensitivity and not suffering from digestive issues) reacted to gluten: for all subjects in the study, the ingestion of gluten activated a gene responsible for triggering “gut permeability”: inflammation in the wall of the digestive system, which allows undigested food molecules to pass straight into the blood stream. This activates the immune system responsible for defending you against “foreign” invaders.
This means that every time you eat something containing gluten, you are triggering a certain level of gut permeability, which in turn triggers a low level of inflammation.
What I personally do and advise you to do
It took me a long time to realize the magnitude of the impact of gluten on my health and performance. In fact, even when I did realize it and started eliminating gluten from my diet, I made common mistakes which made me feel and perform worse.
I eat completely gluten free, and what keeps me motivated to eat gluten free is NOT the reprieve from digestive issues, but rather the SIGNIFICANT difference in cognitive capacity, mental clarity, energy levels, and immune system strength.
If you really want to feel a real difference in how you feel and your performance, you have to completely eliminate gluten for at least 30 days and not make the mistakes I’m mentioning below.
Mistakes I made going “gluten free”:
- Incorporating “cheat” days every 7 to 10 days: it’s a mistake because it takes 10-15 days for the lining of your digestive system to heal from gluten-triggered inflammation, and it takes up to 30 days for the chronic inflammation to subside
- Eating “gluten free products”: the first temptation is to go and buy gluten free bread, cookies, pastries, etc. You’re eliminating gluten to get rid of inflammation – replacing gluten with “gluten free products full of other inflammatory ingredients” wouldn’t really help now would it?!
What to do:
- Completely eliminate gluten from your diet for 30 days, no cheating – the cravings will go away
- Do NOT replace gluten with “gluten free” products: focus on eating “real food”. What’s the point of eliminating once source of inflammation only to replace it with another?
- When getting started, take collagen (or ideally bone broth) to help heal your digestive lining faster
- After 30 days, try eating gluten again and be conscious of how you feel afterwards
- If you decide to remain gluten free, there are many options (contact me if you need tips) – I will from time to time eat real home-made fermented sourdough bread and it doesn’t affect me like normal bread does
Should everyone go gluten free?
It’s a personal choice:
- If it’s causing health issues: I strongly advise you to eliminate it completely.
- If it’s causing digestive issues: you have to make the choice between “that pizza is worth the gas, bloating and diarrhea” or not.
- If it’s not causing any health or digestive issues: again it’s a choice between being ok with operating at 70-80% of your potential and 100%. Personally, I refuse to settle for 70% or 80% and will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of high performance in all aspects of my life – then again, others may not have the same goals…
Any questions / comments, feel free to ask.