Gluten is not inherently detrimental to human health

I perceive 2 opposing camps in the debate over the health issues with gluten. In the first, gluten poses no health risks except for a very small percentage of people with a genetic profile that leads to celiac disease. In the second gluten is a problem for all humans and it’s just a matter of degree of damage that has been caused. I belong to neither of these and have had trouble finding others who share my belief which is:

Like many other substances, gluten in the diet becomes a problem for people when consumption exceeds a person’s ability or capacity to digest it safely.

There are a lot of  people with gluten sensitives in the US these days. These people often experience remarkable improvement when switching to a gluten-free diet. I am not disputing these premises. I am finding it frustrating how many people are explaining this phenomena as gluten or grains being intrinsically problematic for human health. And the most common failing of their explanations of how gluten harms the human body is to completely ignore the role of the stomach as a protein digesting organ.

When someone describes how gluten harms the small intestine they may be absolutely correct and at the same time misleading. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” People develop problems from gluten in their small intestines because the gluten is not being digested in the stomach. If a person digests gluten in their stomachs then they will not develop gluten sensitivities nor celiac disease. And the problem is that since people blame gluten for their health symptoms they engage in symptom management by eliminating gluten from their diets, which is wise, but never address the underlying digestive dysfunction, which is unwise.

So what happens to people with gluten sensitivity (including those with celiac disease) over time is that they develop additional food sensitivities as other proteins which are not being digested enter their bloodstream through their small intestines and provoke an immune response. It’s not that gluten is “evil”, it’s that people are consuming more than their bodies can handle, which is true of a number of foods considered “evil” these days (such as sugar). I think the best approach to recovering from a state where one is over-consuming a substance for their digestive capacity is to both reduce consumption and increase digestive capacity.

What troubles me is the rise of the gluten-free industry, the rise of the gluten-free lifestyle, and the rise of the “gluten-free is the best diet for everyone” mentality. Again, a person would be wise to avoid foods to which they have developed a sensitivity but it’s important to not treat such states as normal or healthy. Being unable to adequately digest proteins is dysfunctional and will continue to cause health problems until the underlying problem is corrected. Once the digestive dysfunction is corrected a person could still choose to avoid gluten (or other foods) as they please but at least they would be doing so from a place of relatively better health.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *