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Gluten-Free: Fad or the Real Deal?

by Racer X Virtual Trainer


Coach Seiji, author of the popular Virtual Trainer feature, Coach Seiji Says, has turned me on to a great website on health and nutrition. It's called Mark's Daily Apple, and it's full of informative articles on general fitness and well being, most of which apply to the motocross athlete.

Since gluten-free marketing is all the rage, I thought I'd post this article on the topic which I think does a good job of covering the issue from a common sense and research-based point of view. I'll admit that until I read the article I was on the side of the nay-sayers. I thought that the only people who needed to worry about Gluten were those who suffer from Celiac disease. Turns out that may not be true. Definitely time for a closer look at this whole gluten-free thing. - Virtual Trainer

This Gluten-Free Thing Is a Really Overblown Fad!

This is a comment I’m starting to see more and more often. Go to any news article about gluten and the comment section will be littered with angry outbursts and outright vitriol for people who go gluten-free. Skeptical blogs love to trot out posts lambasting and ridiculing the “gluten-free fad.” And from what I can tell, nothing inspires a contemptible eye-roll like a person asking a waiter in a restaurant if they have gluten-free options. By some stretch of the known laws of cause-and-effect, the removal of gluten from someone’s diet apparently causes irreparable harm to people with knowledge of the decision and deserves unequivocal reprobation. Otherwise, why else would they care so much?

Well, gluten-free is clearly more popular than ever. More and more people are becoming aware of it. Google searches for “gluten” have been trending higher month over month for years, while the number of searches for “celiac” has plateaued. 30% of American adults are actively trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets, according to a recent pollGluten-free dating sites are popping up to help gluten-free dieters match up with people who share their situation. The FDA’s just weighed in with some official standards for gluten-labeling. It’s everywhere, in other words. It’s arrived. It’s popular. And whenever anything gets popular, people immediately begin hating it. I’m not sure why that is, really, but it’s a known human phenomenon. Couple that with your already annoying co-worker droning endlessly on about this new diet she’s on, and I can see how someone might get a bit annoyed at all the gluten-free talk.

But is the vitriol really necessary? Does its popularity invalidate it as a legitimate therapeutic option for people with a sensitivity or downright intolerance to gluten? Should incurious cynics masquerading as skeptics be so quick to dismiss it?

Okay, maybe sometimes people can be a bit evangelical about avoiding gluten, and that’s unpleasant. And sometimes, people can’t give you a straight answer when you grill them on exactly why they’re avoiding gluten. I’d wonder why you felt it was your place to “grill them” in the first place, of course, but there is that subset of the population who takes umbrage at people making health decisions without conducting randomized controlled trials, being able to cite research by memory, and consulting the authorities.

I’ll also admit that the prospect of marketers taking over and appropriating the movement for their own benefit concerns me. For many people, a “gluten-free” label unfortunately bestows a cachet of health onto whatever processed food it graces. Potato chips? They’re gluten-free! Triple-chocolate brownie mud slide fudge-topped soy flour locust bean gum explosion? Gluten-free! Eat without guilt! Gluten-free bread that makes up for the lack of gluten’s texturizing power with a half cup of soybean oil? Go for it! Even foods that never contained gluten in the first place, like Cheetos, and hummus, are getting the gluten-free label to capitalize on the trend.

On one hand, it’s like the fat-free labeling craze, where you had fat-free cookies with twice the sugar, fat-free yogurt with thrice the sugar, fat-free salad dressing with whatever sorcery they incorporated to make that possible. And people ate those things with willful abandon, confident that “fat-free” was a synonym for “healthy” – and obesity rates continued to rise. Heck, the fat-free movement most likely exacerbated America’s obesity problem. I can understand why people who mistrust food marketing would be skeptical of gluten-free in general.

Of course, there is an important difference that distinguishes gluten-free from other faddish, market-driven diets: you don’t actually need gluten-free products to go gluten-free. The fat-free movement turned people off of legitimately healthy nutrient-dense foods like beef, eggs, butter, nuts, avocados, and olive oil just because they contained fat, whereas going gluten-free doesn’t remove a vital, essential nutrient or food. In fact, it can even increase your intake of nutrients, assuming you replace the gluten-containing foods with naturally gluten-free meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts rather than gluten-free junk food. In my experience, gluten-free consumers are more informed about health in general and do the former.

Amidst all the marketing speak, the gluten-free water, the gnashing of teeth upon discovering that the person you’re talking to avoids gluten, real science is being done, and any honest, literate person who looks at the available evidence on the health effects of gluten will admit that there’s something to this “fad.” And yet, I’m increasingly struck by the unwillingness of intelligent people to acknowledge the reams of research coming out every week exploring the effects of gluten on non-celiacs.

It couldn’t be that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real and we don’t know how many people actually have it as the epidemiology is too new and underdeveloped. It can’t possibly be that gluten-free diets might reduce adiposity/inflammation via epigenetic effects (potentially reaching across generational lines). There’s no way that gluten free diets help non-celiac IBS patients who had no preconceived notions of gluten-free dieting (and thus no risk of being influence by the hype). And that case study of the child with type 1 diabetes going into remission with a gluten free diet? Let’s just sweep that under the rug and completely forget about it. Oh, what about the link between autism and non-celiac gluten sensitivity? Doesn’t exist. PubMed is a liar. Those autistic kids with GI symptoms who do respond positively to a gluten-free diet? They don’t, and the study you just thought you read is a figment of your imagination. All that hubbub about modern dwarf wheat being more allergenic than ever is also nonsense. Besides needing a stool to reach the top shelf, modern wheat is totally identical to older wheat and is no more allergenic.

Another popular canard is the “celiac is too rare for most people to worry about” one. Well, about that: the latest research out of Australia (a remarkably gluten-conscious country) shows that celiac is far more prevalent than previously thought and about 50 percent of the population carries the genetic markers associated with gluten sensitivity. Scientists used a combination of traditional antibody testing (which measures the immune response to gluten) with analysis of genetic risk factors for celiac to reach their conclusions. Not everyone with risk factors actually displayed gluten intolerance or celiac disease, of course, but the presumption is that some combination of environmental factors – inflammatory diet, damaged gut microbiome, etc. – could trigger its expression. (Epigenetics rears its head yet again.) Most people skeptical of gluten-free diets take an “either you are or you aren’t” stance on gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, while the results of the Australian research would suggest that it’s far more dynamic and that a large portion of the population can develop issues with gluten given the right (or wrong) environmental context.

Nope, forget all that research: it’s just people latching onto a fad. It’s just nearly a third of Americans going gluten-free because Miley Cyrus did it (I eagerly await widespread adoption of twerking by millions of soccer moms). It’s millions of people sticking with a dietary regimen that offers no tangible benefits and actually makes them actively unhealthier. And if there is a benefit, it’s all in their heads.

I guess it’s easier to pick on the easy targets and ignore the people with evidence. It’s easy to dismiss the entire movement because of a few misinformed trend-followers, but it’s dishonest. Look – I’m all for the denunciation of health fads and trends that don’t make sense and are based on spurious claims, but not everything that’s popular is bad.

My favorite thing is when “concerned health experts” caution against starting a gluten-free diet without talking to your doctor, paying for a test to determine a gluten allergy, and consulting with a registered dietitian. As if giving up bread, pasta, and cake for more animals and plants is a dangerous undertaking that requires professional assistance. As if removing gluten and feeling loads better only to feel terrible upon a chance reintroduction is an unreliable way to determine if you should go gluten-free.

Here’s why I welcome the explosion in gluten-free awareness, even if it all amounts to a whole lot of nothing for some people: it leads to an overall more healthy diet. Even if you can eat gluten without incident, even if your gut flora is able to cleave gluten in twain for easy digestion, you will still get more nutrients by replacing your grain products with more meat, seafood, vegetables, roots, and fruit. Sure, you’ve got the folks who go gluten-free by swapping in gluten-free versions of all their favorite foods and end up eating nutrient bereft diets full of refined alternative flours, but I think they’re in the minority for a few reasons.

First, gluten-free junk food tastes worse than the originals, although that’s changing as the market grows and food producers improve their methods.

Second, gluten-free products are generally more expensive than the regular products.

Third, in my experience, people who go gluten-free usually stumble into a Primal way of eating. The way I see it playing out is you have sweet potatoes or rice instead of rolls at dinner. You go with a real corn tortilla or lettuce wrap tacos instead of burritos. Instead of buying all that gluten-free bread that turns into dust at the slightest touch, you spend the money on meat and vegetables. You go out to eat at a burger joint and maybe they don’t have the gluten-free bun that day, so you have the patty on a salad and realize it’s not such a bad way to eat – and you stick with it.

I’ve read the studies. I’ve consulted the experts (who are actually studying this stuff). I’ve witnessed the incredibly positive changes in thousands of readers, friends, family members, and clients who gave up gluten (and most grains for that matter). Heck, I’ve felt it myself. Is there something to this whole gluten-free thing?

I’d say so, yeah.

What about you?

This article was reproduced with permission from Mark's Daily Apple.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Doug Taylor September 05, 2013 at 8:27 am

    I believe that challenging the GI system with substandard food is both a legitimate excersize for the GI system but also allows our body to mark and combat more types of bacteria. Running only sterilized, high quality foods through us makes our immune system (of the GI) weak and may lead to more inflammation due to mis-marking the real threats.

    Ever notice how poor kids with an atrocious diet are robust, while well off kids eating a precision diet end up being susceptible to being sick? I believe it is because their GI immune system is not being challenged to overcome random foodborne allergens, bacteria, and other difficulties.

    Eating only perfect foods, drinking pure water, and exercising hard makes the musculskeleton system strong and agile, but it is asking the GI processing system along with the GI immune responders to sit on the couch and watch TV all year long.

    Our whole being needs challenge to be truly healthy. Mental, physical, and yes, even gastrointestinal challenges are mandatory for us to reap all of the rewards we set as goals.

    While it may sound like I am saying to buy a pallet of Cheetos, what I am really saying is that it is good to eat liver in a dodgy diner, a tuna sandwich that has not been refrigerated perfectly, and some grocery store macaroni salad semi regularly to throw your body a curve, especially when you are in a rest cycle.

    My two cents.

  2. Gravatar
    Turbo Charged September 05, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Celiac gluten disease affects about 1/100 people. For them it is very real. For everybody else there's no reason to avoid gluten. So yes, this is a fad and it is being exploited by food manufactures, new age morons who bill gluten free as being more healthy, and people who like the attention of "having an affliction."

    I once read an article by a woman who claimed that she was allergic to GMO foods. uh huh. In a few years gluten free will die off and it will be something else.

    Also, carrying a genetic marker doesn't necessarily mean anything. We all carry genetic markers for various things that could impact us but usually don't.

    For the 1%, celiac disease must be terrible so I'm sure they appreciate living in a time of awareness of this problem so that's great that they have options now.

  3. Gravatar
    Greg Marino September 05, 2013 at 11:30 am

    "Turbo Charged" pretty much summed up my thoughts...and with the knowledge I'd already received and entered into the weighing of the FACTS.

    This IS all the rage and indeed until someone with enough volume starts the next latest and greatest that everyone can't do without. Gluten-Free diets, like same VAST majority of sex marriages and moronic tattoos, is nothing more than the lemming doing...what lemming do. In the case of the aforementioned, sooner or later folks will be waking up in the morning or catching an unfortunate glance of themselves in the mirror thinking the inevitable thought "WTF did I do?!?!"

    With the Gluten-Free-ers, we'll simply catch them pulling away from their self-induced hypocrisy, and the drive up window at your local burger thing, of the diet that will eventually return to and consist of...EVERYTHING that was them...just a month or so ago!

    Grasp the obvious folks! It's BEYOND clear what the body and mind needs! The LAST thing that [it] needs is a shift in a dedicated and sensible routine because of an interim popular opinion and the "artificial intelligence" of the so-called experts in this...or ANY other field. (And, the LAST thing the body needs if you're in the hunt for say, the AMA Amateur Nationals)

    In the end, Gluten-Free for folks OUTSIDE the 1/100 is a bigger lie, than Lance Armstrong winning even seven Tour de Dopers!

  4. Gravatar
    Brian September 05, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    "gluten-free consumers are more informed" I would bet most people have no idea what gluten is or where it comes from. I am also confident very few could explain why it causes any sort of gastric distress. The same type of irrational people believe organic food is more nutritious, and Monsanto is trying to poison the world.

    'Those autistic kids with GI symptoms who do respond positively to a gluten-free diet? They donâ

  5. Gravatar
    E. Strand September 05, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    I think a lot of motocross racers have celiac, based on their size and weight. Celiac stops proper nutrition from being absorbed into the body. I ate everything including twinkies, McDonalds, etc. and had very low body fat and rock abs. I showed very little symptoms in my twenties and early thirties. Then it started to show up. Once I stopped the gluten I gained 70lbs. to 209 because I still had bad eating habits. Now I weigh a healthy and strong 178 and I have been gluten free for 5 years. Do NOT THINK IT IS A MYTH.
    Small guys with low body fat, like motocrossers are very likely to have celiac. Look at someone like Tony Carolli in Italy. I would put money on it that he would test positive. Get checked!

  6. Gravatar
    Stephen September 05, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I was having a lot of digestive problems (aka the runs) and yep I am self employed so time for self diagnosis which takes some time (a lot of time) trying different eating habits to counter. After months of gluten free (which really sucked by the way) my morning/lunch run for the toilet is now relating back to coffee.

    I'm not talking about the normal yeah coffee makes me run to the commode, I'm talking about lasting all the way until dinner every time I ate anything. So I tried switched to a low acid coffee from Trader Joe's and BAM, freaking miracle! So off to eat a burger with extra bun:)

    PS Gluten free = more corn which = rectal bleeding. Thought I would leave you with that. So now let's see an article on Monsanto reactions?!

  7. Gravatar
    Bill September 05, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Good article on overall diet. The problem is processed foods and the overly complicated list of ingredients. The solution is growing local foods and diets that are nutritious and simple to prepare.

  8. Gravatar
    Sprocket September 05, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    I have doing the gluten free (more like reduced) thing for about 6 months now. I started due to chronic sore throats and canker sores and I was desperate for a solution. Well the sore throats stopped and although the frequency of cankers is the same the severity and pain of them has been reduced. Now when I eat gluten I feel like I have a hangover the next day.

  9. Gravatar
    JKPK1 September 06, 2013 at 4:01 am

    For those with true concerns and need to adhere to gluten free or other food allergy based diets it becomes a drastic but effective change.

    Before Gluten Free was the rage it has become, my wife was diagnosed with food allergies including gluten based foods. Living and eating gluten free is life changing. What was previously diagnosed as mid life allergies treated via medication by an allergist for years has now seen no more visit for allergy shots or medication.

    Prior to her allergies, she was a very good mountain bike rider, over the course of several years, her speed and endurance failed for no obvious reasons. The medication and allergy doctor got her partially back on track. After many years, it was a visit to her OBGYN that convinced her to just try a diet change and see if she had food allergies. After 6 weeks of a very specific diet to "reset" her system, previous foods were reintroduced, while noting any side effects. This provided a list that mimicked a blood lab test (blood based I think) indicating what foods or items she has concerns with.

    It is a real PIA to deal with this, but is a trade off like most things worthwhile. Myself, I have become a gluten free supporter. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I stick by her and eat most of what she eats. Some good, most not so good. I do cheat sometimes when away from her, or for a big night out we have a gluten loaded pizza.

    I wish this and man things could be changed or different. Not a fad in out house, but to play, sometimes the training and suffering is more than time on two wheels.


  10. Gravatar
    Brad Dietrich September 07, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Who are you going to believe, angry reactionaries who have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that challenges their creed, or people who have done some research and/or have some first-hand experience? I'm one of the latter, and I can attest that removing wheat from your diet works. As the experts say, don't replace the gluten-containing products with nutrient-poor gluten-free carbohydrates, but with natural foods higher in protein and fats.

    Please don't discount the idea because haters condescendingly call it a "fad". I'm reminded of the attitude my old moto partner had about bicycles. In the mid-80s he was into road bikes for cross training, and had nothing but disdain for the new fad of mountain biking. One ride was all it took for him to see how much fun it could be, and after that first ride he said, "I guess sometimes things become fads for a reason!"

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    kris September 09, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I have tried about every diet imaginable including the Paleo Diet and I have frequented Mark Sisson's website and read his book. I've actually tried it several times because I kept thinking it was the way to go, but every time I find myself going back to grains and feeling much better.

    If you have a food allergy to wheat, then you need to eat gluten free products just like lactose intolerant people can't have dairy products. This doesn't mean that healthy people should avoid these foods all together.

  13. Gravatar
    Malcolm September 26, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Just my experience, I tried the gluten free side of things last season and didn't find it effected me one way or another. I never had a bad diet to begin with, so I'm back onto my plain good diet as before and love it. Match it with good training regime.

  14. Gravatar
    Bryson February 26, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    whats a good healthy organic gluten diet like what foods do i look for at my loco grocery store?

  15. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer February 27, 2014 at 8:57 am

    See if the link helps.

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