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On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we visited my father’s side to celebrate the holiday. My aunt prepared dinner and it was not the conventional fest. Every part of the meal was gluten-free, and she substituted normal ingredients for seemingly healthier ingredients. My dad is the only person in my family who has celiac disease, but my aunt makes gluten-free everything all the time. This same aunt was raving about a website where she orders BPA-free canned food. This reminded me of the pop quiz we took in class regarding BPAs. The class concluded that BPAs might not be so detrimental to overall health because we do not fully understand BPA effect on the body. Meanwhile, all my aunts swore that BPAs would kill me before my 30th birthday. These same women also swore that a gluten-free diet made them feel happier and healthier despite having seemingly healthy and normal gastrointestinal function. Instead of just taking their word on gluten-free diets, I wanted to explore the question myself: should I follow a gluten-free diet?
Since there seems to be such a negative connation with gluten, I wanted to look into what gluten actually is. According to an article in Live Science, gluten is a made up of wheat, barely, and rye. To me, this protein initially sounds harmless. Since my dad developed celiac disease, I wanted to learn how he could grow up eating gluten and now gets sick if he eats a slice of pizza or a piece of toast. In the same article, the author explained that the immune system could mistake gluten, which is indigestible, as a threat to the body. Then, immune system attacks the gluten and kills off parts of the intestinal wall as collateral damage. Eventually, the person cannot eat gluten anymore. Now, gluten does NOT seem so harmless to me.
Still, why do my aunts claim to feel better when they eat a gluten free diet even though they do not have identifiable gastrointestinal problems? After sifting through research, I came across a term that could explain: non-celiac gluten-sensitivity. The study that seemed most reliable was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. To start, 134 participants ate a gluten-free diet for 3 weeks. Only 101 participants stayed in the trial when they were randomly assigned to consume gluten or not in a week. The null hypothesis was that changing the diets from gluten-free to gluten would have no effect on the participants. The alternative hypothesis was that the diet shift would cause symptoms in the participants. At the end of the study, 28 people in the experimental group claimed they felt gluten symptoms such as anxiety, unclear mind, and diarrhea. With that being said, 14 people in the placebo group reported the same thing. The researchers had to reject the null hypothesis and accept the alternative hypothesis even though there were not any measurable factors for those who did feel symptoms and for those who did not feel symptoms.
Overall, this study seems reliable since the sample size was relatively large, and it was a double-blind experiment. My takeaways from the study are that there is not a clear mechanism for gluten sensitivity because there is not any identifiable damage to the intestines. My guess, is that the immune system just is starting to break down cells of the intestinal wall, and it might not yet be considered celiac disease. Still, gluten sensitivity seems like a large placebo effect. Many people in the placebo group felt symptoms from gluten even though they were not eating gluten. Those who felt symptoms in the control group could not be differentiated by certain characteristics from those in the experimental group. Since many famous stars say that gluten-free is better and many health foods highlight their gluten-free logos, it is easy to think that gluten is terrible and become more at risk for experiencing a placebo effect. After looking at this study, I think gluten-free might be a fad.
Even if gluten-sensitivity is just a placebo effect, I wondered if I should still try it out the diet anyway. If the diet did no harm, it might be worth trying it out and seeing if I fee any health benefits. When I was looking for information about the gluten-free diet, I found a study that looked at a 3 day self report from people who ate gluten-free diets. These people reported that they got less than the recommended amount of fiber, iron, and calcium from these diets. The women reported to be getting less than half the recommended amount in each category.
Even though the sample size was not specified in this report and there is the possibility of human error when logging the food. This study still raises concern for people who eat gluten free. It seems like people are not getting the nutrients they need from these new trendy foods. While it would be beneficial to review more studies similar to this one, it does not seem healthier to eat gluten free.
All of this research and considering my fathers celiac disease got me thinking about risk again. I am not sure what the likelihood of me getting celiac disease is. It seems like if I enjoy bread and other gluten-y food items in moderation, I could lessen my chances of getting celiac. If I do get celiac disease, the hazard would result in me adjusting to a gluten-free diet, which I could do. If that happens, hopefully the gluten-free products will be enhanced and fortified with enough nutrients to be considered healthy. In the mean time, I do not think it is a health risk for me to enjoy the stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner and a freshly baked sourdough sandwich at lunch. Overall, I think I continue to enjoy a gluten-inclusive diet.