Why does going gluten free work for so many?
Massive thanks to Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition, who posted the original version of this article on his great nutrition blog.
Going on a gluten free diet seems to make people feel better, but the strange thing is that only a very small minority are actually sensitive to gluten.
In fact, Only 1% of the UK population are coeliac, while the prevalence of “Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity” has been reported in peer reviewed scientific literature to be to be anywhere between 0.6-6%.
So why do so many people feel better after giving up gluten?
1. The Wheat Placebo Effect
Tell someone that doing something is going to be GOOD for us, and it’s hugely likely they will usually report back positive changes to their health in some way, be it physically or mentally – that’s called the “placebo effect”.
It’s fascinating actually – great TED talk below on the placebo effect…
Similarly, we can also create a “nocebo” effect by believing that when we consume something it’s going to mess us up.
Obviously, this becomes much more likely when the person receiving the advice is relatively uninformed (i.e. a member of the general population) and they have full faith that they are talking with an expert in the area. If the credentials look good and the argument sounds convincing, that may flip the switch.
Just look at the popularity of “detox juice-cleanses” (which have no basis in medicine – great explanations here, here and here.) But again, the point is that people believe that these juice cleanses work, and so feel better.
So back to wheat – surely not everyone is experiencing a “nocebo” effect? Probably not. There are other factors at play here too….
2. “Cold Turkey” Baseline Response
Some who never drinks coffee will feel a sharp response on consuming some. Similarly, someone who has been gluten-free for a prolonged period will have a greater response to gluten compared to someone who eats it all the time.
Perhaps then could a “gluten self-experiment” set some of us up for a self-fulfilling prophecy?
You go gluten-free for 60 days, then re-introduce a big dose of wheat on day 61 and suddenly you don’t feel the best. So a one-off self-experiment to determine tolerance may not be an accurate test.
Saying that, if you know that EVERY time you eat wheat you don’t feel good then that’s clearly a different issue.
By the way, this is hilarious…
3. Non-Gluten Issues With Wheat
Could the benefits of reducing wheat in someone’s diet be down to the reduction of a component of wheat other than gluten? Well, there has in fact been recent research which suggests that FODMAPS might be to blame. This is certainly interesting and it at least raises the hypothesis that the reason wheat makes some people feel bad may in fact have nothing to do with gluten.
But it’s worth pointing out that removing gluten-containing grains from the diet will drop FODMAP intake, but not by that much. So the relief in symptoms that people report can’t just be down to FODMAPs, can it? I don’t know. We still need a lot of research to work out exactly what’s going on.
So what else might be going on?
4. Your Overall Daily Diet Improves
Is it really the gluten in your 12 inch pizza with garlic bread and large coke that’s the problem in your diet?
When people cut out gluten from their diet, it forces them to think a little more carefully about their food choices and so a move away from gluten can also be accompanied by a move away from heavily processsed junk foods, which may indeed by part of the reason they’re not feeling up to scratch.
If someone eliminates wheat (or all gluten-containing grains), breakfast no longer looks like toast and jam or a bowl of breakfast cereal or a croissant. Maybe to be replaced by an omelette or nuts & meat or some salmon & avocado? All are common recommendations for grain-free dieters. Now, even if gluten/wheat was not a problem for this person, they’re now automatically eating a higher protein, more nutrient-dense breakfast.
And yes, I fully acknowledge that was an unfair comparison as one set of options was highly processed, low protein and the other set were the reverse. BUT this is typically what happens.
A majority of people who ‘go gluten-free’ are starting from a typical Western diet. Essentially a start point of zero. The only way is up. And so perhaps this could be why so many people report feeling better after going gluten-free. Maybe it’s nothing to do with the gluten.
Maybe it’s just the fact they’re eating better quality food, more protein and less sugar?
So reducing wheat products from your diet can be beneficial. Many will experience feeling and looking better soon afterwards. HOWEVER, it may not be the gluten that’s to blame. Regardless, it’s certainly worth a go for a week or two – the chances are you will more than likely feel better. Then, it’s a case of trying to figure out if it’s the gluten that’s to blame, or something else!
If you do have symptoms of coeliac sensitivity and want to find out more about getting diagnosed, check out Coeliac UK.
PS: Looking for some gluten free breakfast ideas? Check out our award winning gluten free muesli, (which is registered with Coeliac UK), also worth taking a look at our gluten free cereal bars, our gluten free porridge oats and our gluten free porridge bread mix.