Understanding Gluten Sensitivity.

Living in the bay area is an interesting culinary experience. I have guests over for dinner very often, and we always have to ask for dietary restrictions. It seems like everybody here is either Vegan, Gluten-Free, Lactose-Free, or on some diet (raw, atkins, etc). Many restaurants cater to these, which I love because it makes it easy to healthy. I do however like to step back and question these things sometimes.

After a batch of recent studies came out disputing the existence of Gluten Intolerance it became fashionable to make fun of people who are allergic to bread. There was Jimmy Kimmel skit where he made fun of people who didn’t even know what gluten was but who were claiming to be on a gluten-free diet.

Gluten is a protein that makes up the glue-like substance that makes bread stick together. If you’ve ever eaten the crisp and fragile bread that’s made gluten free you’ll know that it’s pretty useful. Some people however cannot eat gluten at all because an autoimmune disease causes white blood cells to attack the villi in their intestines making it difficult to absorb carbohydrates in general and gluten in particular is a problem in this situation. This is called Coeliacs disease, and it’s neither funny nor controversial at all.

Some early scientific studies appeared to show that some people who had discomfort after eating bread felt better on a diet without gluten. But recently this analysis has been put into doubt. I decided to read into it and it turns out that the latest scientific theory is that the culprit is not gluten at all, but rather fermentable oligo-, di-, mono saccharides and Polyls (FODMAP). These are carbohydrates that your small intestine can’t digest, and which when they pass to your large intestines start to ferment. As you can imagine anything fermenting in your large intestine will cause flatulence, bloating, gas, and discomfort. Everyone is affected by these things, but some more than others. It just so happens that a gluten free diet also has low levels of these FODMAP’s. So while the latest science appears to tell us that “gluten sensitivity” is bunk, it is true that gluten-free diets do accidentally provide help to people who are more sensitive to the discomfort from FODMAP’s than others. I suspect that as this becomes better understood there will be a better diet which focuses on limiting FODMAP’s, and not on Gluten.

So, how do we deal with that friend who insists that gluten intollerance is a real thing? I think many people go about doing this the wrong way. First of all, there exists a mental disorder called “Gluten Sensitive Ideopathic Neuropathy” in which people make themselves feel sick when eating gluten. It’s like a psychosomatic response once they find out they ate bread. So if the person you are saying this to is mentally ill in this way, don’t make it worse, just hand it off to a professional. Second, they could actually have Celiacs, but that’s unlikely. Finally, saying “gluten intolerance isn’t real” won’t help anybody, because people do legitimately feel better when they go on a gluten free diet, so they’ll think you’re full of shit. Simply explain that researches had made a mistake, and that correlation didn’t imply causation, and that lowering the amount of bread and gluten products they eat will make them feel better because those foods have lower levels of Fermentable Oligo- Mono- Di- Saccharides and Polyls, which it turns are the real culprit.