What the Hell is Gluten?!
“For the first time, a vegan, gluten-free bakery has opened at Disney World. The place is called ‘It’s A Sad World After All.’” – Conan O’Brien
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the word “gluten.” I’m referring to it as a word because, in most cases, that’s all it is to people. More accurately, a “trigger word” that has no doubt lead to plenty of barroom debates fueled by gluten-heavy beers. You know, the ones where everyone involved is an expert as they sneak off to the bathroom to ask Siri to help them come up with their next great piece of evidence to support their unshakeable opinion… Like most hotly debated topics, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle-ground. Most arguments you’ll hear are either staunchly against any and all gluten ingestion, or strongly for it. Matter of fact, the medical community doesn’t even give you the option of a “middle ground.” The way they see it, there are two possible scenarios when it comes to Gluten:
- You are gluten-intolerant (Celiac Disease)
- You are not gluten-intolerant, therefore, gluten is perfectly safe for your body.
Now, in a perfect world, this would be correct, but here in the real world, things aren’t always so simple. Gluten-sensitivity is no exception. Overwhelming clinical research has shown that the degree of gluten-sensitivity can vary significantly from person to person and something called, “Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity” (1) is a very real thing. Some would even argue that ALL humans are gluten-sensitive to at least some degree. But I’m getting ahead of myself here… Let’s start with the basics.
What the hell is Gluten?! Better yet, why is it so dangerous? Not to mention, if getting rid of it is the “cure-all” answer, then why are there so many overweight people preaching that a gluten-free diet has “improved” their health?
I have to say, most of my research on this topic has lead me to exhaustive explanations using mind-numbing vocabulary that usually leave the reader with more questions than answers. For that reason, I’m going to attempt to answer these questions for you, in the simplest way possible:
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye oats, and barley. Other grains such as corn and rice also contain proteins which very closely resemble gluten and can cause similar problems in the digestive tract.
Before I dive into gluten, we need to take a brief detour to learn a bit about grains. In a typical Western Diet, you’ll find grains in nearly every processed food product you can think of, in some form or another. The most commonly consumed grains include wheat, rye, oats, barley, millet and rice. All of these grains originate from the same family. Thus, each kernel shares the same basic makeup. A fantastic article by Robb Wolf details the basic anatomy of grains, and you can read it here (2). It’s a complicated article, so here’s a quick summary of what grains are made of, in Robb’s words:
Bran (14% of kernel)
- “The bran is the outer covering of a whole, unprocessed grain. It contains vitamins, minerals, and a host of proteins and anti-nutrients designed to prevent animals from eating the grain. When you see brown rice, the bran is the flakey outer covering of the rice.”
Endosperm (83% of kernel)
- “The endosperm is mainly starch with a bit of protein. This is the energy supply of a growing grain embryo. When you see white rice, this is the endosperm with bran and germ removed.”
Germ (3% of kernel)
- “The germ is the actual reproductive portion of the grain. This is where the embryo resides.”
*Note: Notice how Robb explains that white rice is the endosperm of the grain, with the bran and germ removed. This information is crucial for athletes and bodybuilders alike. So many people have just accepted the myth that brown rice is healthier than white rice. This could not be further from the truth. White rice contains far less gut damaging anti-nutrients that are found in the bran of brown rice. Yet, the majority of bodybuilders live off of Tupperware containers filled with chicken breasts and brown rice. To believe that brown rice is a healthier option than white rice, you must also believe that whole grains are beneficial to your overall health, and if you believe that, then I’ll gladly sell you some ocean front property here in Tennessee … The bottom line is, if you’re looking to gain mass, stick with white rice, you’ll achieve the same muscular cell growth with less negative effects on your overall health.
All grains contain proteins. Some of these proteins are called “Lectins.” (Remember: Gluten contains lectins. For the purpose of this article, when reading “lectins” also think “gluten.”) In reality, these lectins are a chemical defense mechanism to help ensure the plant’s survival. It acts as a sort of “pesticide” to prevent animals from eating it. We humans chose to include it as a staple in our Western diet. Since your body cannot break down these toxic lectins, they enter your system intact and in doing so damage the lining of your gut in the process. This triggers an instant immune system response. Your body deploys antibodies which are programmed to attack these foreign invaders. The problem is, toxic lectin proteins look identical to other proteins in your body, proteins that are essential to your health. The antibodies cannot tell the difference between proteins. As a result, the antibodies end up attacking perfectly healthy tissues in your body by binding to beneficial proteins. This is the definition of an “autoimmune response”(3) (your body attacking its own cells and tissues) which leads to autoimmune disease. Let me simplify this even further:Why are we talking about grains? Because nearly every gluten-free product you’ll find on grocery store shelves is made up mostly of grains. Do they contain gluten? No. Do they contain proteins that are almost identical to gluten? Yes. This is the answer to one of the most common questions I get asked as the owner of a Paleo Nutrition Company: “Why aren’t grains part of The Paleo Diet if they don’t have gluten in them?” It is entirely possible to eat a completely gluten-free diet and still suffer from the same symptoms you would experience if you were eating actual gluten.
Autoimmune disease can be a direct result of ingesting gut damaging proteins found in grains.
To drive this point home, take a moment to think about grass because our domesticated grains are direct descendants of wild grasses. Sure, grass may contain nutrients, but if our bodies do not possess the proper digestive enzymes to extract those nutrients, why the hell would we eat it?! You know what animal does possess the digestive enzymes to extract nutrients from grass? Cows. Cows can digest grass. That’s why we let the cows eat the grass, and then we eat the cows. Because not only is the old saying, “you are what you eat,” true, but when it comes to us carnivores, the statement, “you are what you eat, eats” is also true!
Decreasing inflammation may be the single most powerful thing you can do to slow down your body’s aging process. It is an irrefutable fact that the toxicity of the lectins found in grains cause inflammation in your body. In fact, it is no coincidence that higher concentrations can be found in the foods on the FDA’s list of the Top 8 Food Allergens (4). The bottom line is toxic lectins are responsible for undesirable reactions in the human body. This is not an opinion; this is a fact.
The problem here and the reason for much of the debate is that “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity” cannot be detected by the standard diagnostic testing used for Celiac Disease and Food Allergies. A person can certainly test negative for celiac disease and food allergies and yet still experience extremely unpleasant symptoms after ingesting gluten. While someone with celiac disease might have a sip of beer and be sick for days, someone with a mild gluten-sensitivity might drink a couple of beers and have a single unpleasant trip to the bathroom and a mild headache.
So how can you be sure?! If you’re on the fence about the whole gluten debate, here is my advice: Stop listening to other people and find out what’s best for you and your body, as an individual. Be your own detective. The best way to do this is a simple removal/ reintroduction protocol for all grains. Again, all grains contain lectin proteins. Therefore removing gluten alone may not be enough to accurately test your reaction to them. Try the following:
- Remove all grains from your diet for 30 days.
- At the end of 30 days, eat some barley to test your reaction to gluten.
- 2-3 days later, eat a slice or two of wheat bread.
One Last Warning: How Gluten-Free Products Make You FAT!The reason I outline the above protocol specifically is because it is entirely possible to be sensitive to wheat, while not being sensitive to gluten. The above protocol removes any doubt. If you eat barley and have a negative reaction, you are almost certainly sensitive to gluten, at least to some degree, depending on the severity of your reaction. If you do not have a negative reaction to the barley, just wait a couple of days then eat some wheat bread. If you have a negative reaction to the wheat bread, it is more than likely that you are reacting to something in the wheat, specifically, and not reacting to the actual gluten. If you have a negative reaction to both, it is imperative that you remove all grains from your diet! If you don’t heed this warning, you will almost assuredly suffer from a host of health problems as you age.
Ok, so you’ve conducted your test, and you’ve decided to go gluten-free. Here is my next warning: All grains are high in carbohydrates. This is the answer to the question I stated earlier, “if getting rid of gluten is the “cure-all” answer, then why are there so many overweight people preaching that a gluten-free diet has improved their health?”
Many popular gluten-free products are made up almost entirely of gluten-free grains. These grains contain a ridiculous amount of carbohydrates. For example, just look at the Nutrition Facts for Millet (5), one of the most popular ingredients in gluten-free products. Just one cup of raw millet contains 145 grams of carbohydrates! Even cooked, it still packs a whopping 41 grams of carbs per cup. Excess carbs make you fat. Clearly, most gluten-free products are not your friend if your goal is to lose fat and stay lean.
In my opinion, it’s best to avoid processed foods altogether. Stick to whole foods: meats, vegetables, nuts and fruit and you’ll never have to worry about gluten in the first place. That said, as gluten-free products grow in popularity and consumers continue to educate themselves, food manufacturers have found all sorts of new ways to create low-carb, gluten-free products. If you decide that gluten-free is right for you and you still want to buy processed gluten-free products, stick to products made up of lower-carb ingredients such as kelp, sprouts or even daikon and zucchini. If burning fat is a goal, avoid products with the most popularly used high carbohydrate ingredients such as millet, rice flour, modified food starches and sugars like maltodextrin.
To gluten, or not to gluten, that is the question… and the answer is different for everybody. Remember, you are an individual, and your body has unique needs. Don’t let anyone tell you there is only one “correct” way to eat. Do your own research and conduct your own experiments to find out exactly what is best for you.