Much discussion and dare we say it, hype, surrounds gluten and its detrimental effect on your health. Just ten years ago barely anyone knew what the word gluten referred to, let alone gave any thought to avoiding it. But now gluten-free diet menus are popping up everywhere and celebrities such as as Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham thank their gluten-free lifestyle for their thinner thighs and lack of ‘belly bloat’.
So why the sudden rise in interest in gluten? Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. Most of us unknowingly love it; gluten gives our favorite foods that added touch – it makes pizza dough stretchy, gives bread its spongy texture, and is used to thicken sauces and soups. Sadly however, many health experts are now making a link between gluten sensitivity and health issues. Gluten sensitivity can lead to symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and bloating although many of us remain unaware of its effects. With increased testing now available it would appear that many more of us are gluten intolerant than first thought. A word of warning here, though, the idea that a gluten-free diet will help with weight loss is a misconception. Gluten-free does not mean fat-free or calorie-free. Eliminating gluten from your diet may simply reduce the amount of food stuffs available to you and with fewer choices you are perhaps less likely to overeat. Whilst it certainly isn’t an easy, fast-track diet option, eliminating gluten will in many instances make you feel better.
We spoke to fitness expert Duncan O’Brien about his own experiences and why he has opted for a gluten-free diet. ‘Up until 2010 I didn’t know anyone who loved eating sandwiches more than I did. Always famished, moments of manic joyful eating however were always balanced out with an inevitably depressing low which followed. I could always polish off near unlimited amount of sandwiches, rounds of toast or bowls of cereal without really questioning this demanding cycle of eating-joy-low-hunger, but did always wonder how I would maintain my weight once I stopped training and playing football. I needed to eat so much to feel full and it was never long before I would feel that same need to eat again, how would I could I possibly balance out the energy in and energy out equation without excessive activity? Sport had always kept me fairly lean and fit, but I’d seen the future presented time and time again by my peers; the lads and dads in the Sunday morning football league; strong athletic legs carrying expanding upper bodies.
If I’m honest, back then I thought that it is just the way it goes; you get old, fat and immobile! Fast forward nearly four years and I’m rebuilding my body based on health, not fitness, begging my friends and family not to eat bread and am mid-way through listening to 29 inspiring interviews with some of the world’s most influential speakers in the field of gluten sensitivity (The Gluten Summit orchestrated by Tom O’Bryan). These professors, doctors and high performance gurus are confirming many newly found beliefs that we should potentially never eat another sandwich again and with a much greater purpose than purely limiting our growing waistlines. From my own personal experience I have noticed a few general things that I can attribute to the removal of gluten from my diet; bloating, quality of sleep and bowel movements have improved, along with a greater feeling of calm. As an eternal optimist, and a wheat addict, I have often been tempted into reintroducing products containing gluten back into my diet over the last few years. One of my first lessons came at a house party, I was the designated driver, so not drinking I chose to try some of the nibbles. Only moments after devouring some breaded chicken I felt bloated, tired and distracted, and up until that point I’d felt great. Next time of note was when I ate spaghetti at a relative’s house. I figured it would be rude to say no and I could handle some bloating to avoid the embarrassment of not eating the freshly prepared pasta. This time seemed it to go a little smoother, no noticeable or immediate response, well not until the next day, when I had to make a Bolt-esk sprint to the bathroom, with many repeat visits within the space of about an hour. Funnily enough, the body-doubling stomach cramps actually made me smile as I had finally found a link with many previously painful, unexplained but similar experiences throughout my life. I had always thought they were caused by a bug, nerves or something random.
Additionally, on the football pitch and in the swimming pool I had always suffered with inconsistent energy production, some days I just couldn’t sprint. I’m sure it is not all down to gluten, I can safely say the amount of refined carbohydrates I was putting away was far from ideal (carbohydrate intake being another vast yet intimately linked and interesting topic) but anything that causes digestive dysfunction and general discomfort cannot be conducive to optimal performance. It is worth making the point here that I never realised how good I could feel until I tried something different, and would never have tried something different if the things I had read didn’t strike a resonating cord with my own experiences. My route into a gluten-free life came alongside eating more naturally and was driven by personal frustrations with sporting performance. My interest grew as I read about the potential links with other serious health conditions which I see affecting those I love and care about around me.
Although I am passionate about this topic, I would like nothing more than to be able to return to my previous habits, obviously symptom-free and feeling great, but that doesn’t seem to be possible at the moment and certainly not what the scientists are suggesting. Maybe a higher level of understanding will supersede our current health issues and they will change as quickly and as quietly as they arose, after all we are meant to be continually adapting and evolving. Until this happens I think it is best to at least gain a better understanding of the current situation as science explains it and as we potentially unknowingly experience it’.
A protein found in grain-products, namely wheat, barley and rye, oats and other cereal products, gluten is often found in bread, pastries, pasta, pizza base, bagels, cookies, muffins, sauces, gravy, beer and a lot of other spirits and alcoholic beverages. Other grains such as corn and rice have similar, but less problematic proteins. So why is it such a problem?
Just 14 percent of a single grain kernel is bran. It is the outer covering of the unprocessed grain which contains vitamins, minerals, and a variety of proteins such as gluten, and anti-nutrients designed to prevent the eating or consumption of the grain by predators and other hungry animals. The majority (83 percent) of the kernel is known as endosperm, which is mainly starch and some protein, and this is the energy supply for a growing grain embryo. The remaining portion (3 percent) is the germ – the reproductive portion of the grain where the embryo is found.
A wild grain is distributed by being blown in the wind and when conditions are right the embryo begins the process of growth by using the endosperm as energy. This is how most grains reproduce. Some plants like blueberries or similar which have juicy, sweet fruits want to be eaten by animals in order for their seeds to be transported to new places where they can continue to reproduce and grow. However, other plants which do not bear fruit and prefer to reproduce and spread by using the wind take a different approach and attempt to discourage their consumption by coating themselves in substances which irritate or poison potential predators. Consider poison ivy for example, which has oils that can penetrate the skin of animals that come into contact with the plant’s leaves causing irritation and activation of the animal’s immune system. The immune system and white blood cells attack the poisonous oils and in the process release pro-inflammatory chemicals which cause a rash. Grains behave more like poison ivy than blueberries and try to avoid being eaten by using chemicals that irritate the hungry animal’s digestive system. Now consider what happens when we eat grains in the form of bread or any other grain product.
Recent research suggests that the proteins found in grains, namely lectins, are difficult, if not impossible, for the human digestive system to break down. To cut a long story short, the undigested proteins manage to gain access to the bloodstream through the intestinal wall. These large protein molecules are easily mistaken by the body as alien invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and they’re greeted by our immune system which lies in wait, primed and waiting to pounce on any invading pathogens. As mentioned earlier, our immune system’s response is to make antibodies against the foreign proteins and attack them, which can cause inflammation manifesting itself in symptoms such as bloating, irritation, gas, distension, unusual bowel movement and stomach cramps. It can even affect our core muscle function.
If we eat processed grains (unfortunately most store-bought grain products nowadays are heavily processed) on a regular basis for breakfast (toast, porridge or cereal), lunch (sandwich, bagel, pastry or muffin) and dinner (a meal based around pasta or rice, bread or pizza) and do so for an extended period of time, this can become a serious problem in some individuals as the chronic inflammation becomes systemic, affecting systems in the body other than just the digestive system. This auto-immune response, and the resulting inflammation, causes further damage to the intestinal wall which allows more proteins to get through and consequently causes more inflammation. And so the vicious circle continues. This damage can lead to a situation known as leaky gut syndrome or gut hyper-permeability, where the gaps in the microvilli of the intestines become too large and undigested food particles make it through the mucosal barrier so triggering an auto-immune response and chronic inflammation. As a result our body begins to manufacture antibodies to all sorts of different undigested proteins which manage to get through the damaged intestinal wall. This means that the body has the potential to develop a whole host of food allergies which explains why some people can also become sensitive to normally benign foods such as strawberries, seafood and eggs.
This whole process could ultimately lead to celiac disease, which is becoming more and more common due to the changes in our diet, and research has suggested that chronic inflammation may even underlie other systemic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. More recently, scientists have even suggested a link between inflammation and a whole host of auto-immune diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The research continues...
The increased incidence of gluten sensitivity correlates with the increase in the amount of processed foods we eat, specifically the processed grains we have been producing for the last 60 years. The majority of food we see in supermarkets is often processed in some way or another. The use of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, chemical fertilisers, preservatives, additives like colouring, sweeteners and flavouring, and the use of antibiotics in farming, along with processes such as pasteurisation can all damage the gut wall. As a result of the sheer amount of processed gluten-based products in most people’s diets, we are more prone to developing gluten sensitivity, along with various other sensitivities and intolerances to other commonly eaten foods. The problem is exacerbated by the quantity of alcohol (generally made from grains) we drink, genetically modified foods like soy products and the quality of our water supply which often contains traces of chlorine (which can wipe out our gut flora leaving us vulnerable to gut dysbiosis, where the ‘bad’ bacteria in our intestines outnumbers the good). Another significant contributing factor in leaky gut syndrome is chronic stress which also plays a role in the damage caused to the microvilli in the intestines.
None of this makes for nice reading, but what price good health and how do you know if you are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive or perhaps have leaky gut syndrome? Expert Duncan Edwards suggests trying an elimination diet. ‘Cut all grains out of your diet for four weeks, and simply monitor your symptoms. Try to eat ‘real’ food. You may find that the layer of fat which you could never shift was in fact partly inflammation causing distension of the tummy and you no longer get stomach cramps, bloating, gas or diarrhoea. There is also the option of seeking a reputable lab test which could indicate exactly which proteins and foods you are allergic or sensitive to.’ He goes on to stress just how important it is to look after our digestive system. ‘Avoid white flour products including bread, pizza base, pies and pastries, muffins, cookies and biscuits, and avoid processed food and concentrated fruit juices, hybrid grains and genetically modified foods. If a food wasn’t here 10,000 years ago – don’t eat it. Look to consume grass-fed meat, wild caught fish, lots of fresh, seasonal organic vegetables and fruit. Minimise your consumption of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and preservatives by choosing organic produce whenever possible. If you can’t pronounce a word on the ingredient list don’t buy it or eat it. Eat gluten-free bread. Although, be careful not to fall into the gluten-free trap and assume that anything labelled ‘gluten-free’ is healthy!
For more information on this topic or to discover how to meet your body’s unique individual needs contact Duncan Edwards BSc (Hons), CHEK ITP or Duncan O’Brien at Bodyguards Fitness Service Ltd