Science of Food: Is a gluten-free diet right for you? |

Science of Food: Is a gluten-free diet right for you?

Lisa Julian, Ph. D.
Special to the Daily

Everyone is talking about gluten and going gluten-free. What is all this gluten hype about? And is going gluten-free right for you? Let's first start off by discussing what exactly gluten is on the molecular level and what it does inside the body.

Gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, is a large family of proteins, not a single entity. Gluten proteins are broken down in our bodies to smaller proteins and peptides, such as the gliadins, that can cause immune and inflammatory responses in the body, in part due to their relatively long half-life. The gliadin proteins, rich in amino acids proline and glutamine that aid in its structural stability, are currently recognized as the principal toxic component of the gluten protein family.

Recall that all proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids and are the cellular machinery responsible for carrying out all the functions in our bodies to maintain our "self" as a whole. Some exogenous proteins that enter the body, such as the glutens and gliadins, have the potential to react with these proteins inside the body, especially in the immune system, and can elicit an immune and/or inflammatory response (think about what GMO proteins could do — a topic for future discussion). Science is just beginning to understand the role our guts (and the bacteria living in our guts) play in the overall immune system, but we know now that the foods we eat can either nourish this aspect of health and immunity or destroy it.

Gluten can affect people in different ways. Celiac disease is at one extreme end of the spectrum (only about 1 percent of the population), but many experience a sensitivity to gluten that may manifest in similar physical symptoms such as bloating, severe cramping and constipation. The elastic-like physical properties of gluten (why your French baguette is so chewy and delicious) often leads to constipation, inflammation and slower movement of food because it breaks down more slowly in the gut, whereas foods that contain more fiber, as in fruits and vegetables, soften the stool and facilitate movement of food through the digestive tract.

Even those who may not have an underlying sensitivity to gluten may experience some of these effects because we simply eat way too much wheat and gluten "food products" or "food-like substances" in our country. "Too much of something is lack of something" and that lack of something being fresh fruits and vegetables, the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant rich foods.

So back to the question, should you go gluten-free? If you have Celiac disease, even the smallest amount of gluten can cause a devastating auto-immune response, so it is imperative to steer clear of all gluten. Celiac disease is a very specific auto-immune disease. In individuals with Celiac disease, gluten induces an inflammatory response in the intestine leading to destruction of the villous structure in the gut that also aids in the absorption of nutrients into the body. The body recognizes gliadin as dangerous and begins to destroy the small intestine in attempt to attack and rid the body of this substance.

Recommended Stories For You

However, if you have a gluten sensitivity or desire to create a lower inflammatory environment in the gut (those with colitis, IBD or colon cancer), then a low-gluten diet is what I suggest, and this is what I practice for myself. It is not necessary to be completely gluten-free, in fact this may actually create an allergy or sensitivity later in life, so avoid strict and trendy gluten-free diets and weight loss strategies.

Individuals like myself who are not outright Celiac, but do have a gluten sensitivity, experience what is termed "leaky gut" where the tight junctions of the epithelial cells, that line the intestine and serve as a protective barrier, break apart. This intestinal permeability allows potential toxins, proteins (including gliadin), undigested food, microbes and antibodies to escape and enter the bloodstream and can cause inflammation and potential harm to other parts of the body. This is even being linked to certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

Western medicine cannot diagnose individuals who are gluten sensitive, only true Celiacs have the diagnostic tool in the form of a blood test. The only way to know if you experience a gluten sensitivity is to do the experiment for yourself. First become more aware of the wheat and gluten present in your diet. Then remove most of the gluten from your diet for at least several weeks (or remove all gluten if you believe you have Celiac disease and get a blood test), fill it with fruits, vegetables and nutritious non-gluten grains, and observe how you feel, observe your bowel movements, your energy level, your appetite, and your mood.

Try eating quinoa, lentils, rice and non-GMO organic corn, and oats as wheat replacements. Avoid new gluten-free "food products" and experiment with whole foods instead. For example, spaghetti squash is now in season, and this is a wonderful substitute for wheat noodles in your favorite traditional pasta dish. I found that if I do indulge in fresh breads and pastas that eating slowly and mindfully allows time for the gluten to break down and prevents most of the undesirable symptoms of gluten intolerance. You know your body best. Do food experiments and listen to your body, it will tell you what it needs and how much good 'ol gluten is right for you.

Good ‘ol Gluten

What: Workshop with Dr. Lisa Julian

When: Thursday, Sept. 10, 5:30–7 p.m.

Cost: $20. Reservations required. Call 970-401-2071.

For more information visit: