Going gluten-free is seen as a healthy move, but gluten-free foods can trigger metabolic syndrome
It is an interesting – and worrying – fact that, when gluten-intolerant people think they are doing the right, healthy thing by going gluten-free, they are unfortunately leaving themselves open to metabolic syndrome, given the unhealthy composition of many gluten-free foods.
Many of us recognise gluten as the underlying cause of a condition known as coeliac disease (CD), which affects 1% of the population. However, gluten-related illnesses cover a broader population, including another disease entity known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). This affects a staggering 6% of us.
We know that gluten damages the gut and interferes with the digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients. We, therefore, expect this to result in undernutrition and weight loss. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that sufferers of both CD and NCGS experience high rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
In this article, I will discuss how a debilitating “undernutrition” state like CD or NCGS is converted into an “overnutrition” state of obesity and metabolic syndrome, also what gluten sensitivity is, why we have it, and what we can do about it.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors occurring together to increase your risk of diabetes and vascular disease. The risk factors include belly fat, high triglyceride, low ‘good guy’ HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Any three out of the above five risk factors confirm the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome.
As well as its more obvious locations, gluten is used as a thickener in ketchup and salad dressing. To compensate for the lack of gluten, most gluten-free products are rich in sugar; because of this and the fact that these foods are low in nutrients such as iron, calcium, and B vitamins, consuming them can result in weight gain, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
A key study published in 2015 observed coeliac patients at the time of diagnosis and again one year later. At diagnosis, only two out of the 98 people fulfilled the criteria for metabolic syndrome. However, after 12 months on a gluten-free diet, 29 were confirmed to have the condition.
There were also similar changes in individual metabolic risk factors. Having an abnormal waist size moved in the wrong direction – from 48 people at the point of diagnosis to 72 people one year later. High blood pressure more than quadrupled from 4 to 18, high fasting blood sugar more than tripled from 7 to 25, and high triglyceride doubled from 7 to 16. A gluten-free diet did not seem to affect the ‘good guy’ HDL.
Therefore, the metabolic benefits and adverse effects of going gluten-free should be mentioned when such a diet is prescribed.
“Why do I have to go completely grain-free?”
I always struggle to convince my patients to stop eating food that contains gluten when it is clinically indicated. I did a genetic test on one patient who presented with an autoimmune condition that confirmed a high-grade gluten intolerance and recommended a healthy gluten-free diet. I received the following response.
“Why do I have to go completely grain-free? I am finding that a bit harsh. I am happy to go gluten-free, but presumably, I can eat grains that don’t have gluten, like quinoa! Do you have a list of gluten-free foods? I am a bit confused about which grains are gluten-free!”
I responded by saying that, although there are over 900 types of gluten, the world food industry recognises only one – wheat (gliadin) gluten. For example, there is no gluten-free oat as oats contain a different type of gluten called Avenin.
Quinoa is a seed (not a grain), but the jury is still out about its gluten content: there are many conflicting reports, and I prefer to play safe and exclude it as an option.
I also remarked that I personally believe that quinoa contains gluten because my own autoimmune disease vanished completely when I gave up eating it!
I said that rice contains a small amount of gluten, but wild rice is gluten-free. Again, most types of beans provide a healthy carbohydrate option because of their high fibre content.
I advised her to avoid processed, gluten-free foods since they can put her at risk of developing obesity and metabolic syndrome.
She responded, “I am not completely clear in this. Is there any type of grain I can eat other than wild rice that is gluten-free?”
I said that her genetic test confirmed a high degree of gluten intolerance, and in view of her autoimmune condition, she should be very careful with grains.
Most grains contain gluten, which can continue to cause more damage to the gut lining, resulting in a leaky gut and a worsening of autoimmune disease. Continuing to eat gluten will stop the gut from healing.
A bowl of cereal, donuts with your coffee, a chocolate bar
Why do people dread the idea of going gluten-free? Some people think they won’t have enough energy to fulfil their normal daily activities without it. Others take an extreme stand, asserting that going gluten-free or grain-free is not consistent with normal living, and life won’t be possible without the regular consumption of high-calorie refined food.
This all goes back to the way we have been programmed to experience life through the western diet. You have a big bowl of cereal early in the morning, a couple of donuts with your coffee before you reach the office, and, to stay fully energetic, physically, and mentally, you eat a bar of chocolate with your mid-morning coffee!
I am sure most of us have observed the magical effect of popping a sweet into the mouth of a crying child. This instantaneously brings calm and a lovely smile to their face. This is because sweets prompt your brain to release dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
Most gluten-containing food contains refined carbs that are instantaneously broken down into simple sugar, which has the same effect on the brain as sweets. This is why going gluten-free is such a challenge for everyone.
On the other hand, moving to gluten-free versions of bread, pasta and pizza hold the danger of developing obesity, metabolic syndrome and vascular disease.
A ‘modern diet’ gave them pre-diabetes in two days!
One study demonstrated the damaging effect of the modern diet. The participants were asked to consume 6,000 calories per day, consisting only of refined and processed foods. They were not allowed any exercise for the duration of the study. Instead, they were advised to watch TV!
The diet resulted in 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) weight gain in one week, insulin resistance (pre-diabetes), an increase in adipose (fat) tissue, and inflammatory markers. The terrifying result was that participants developed insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) in only two days.
This is an extreme example, but of course, if you continue to consume refined carbohydrates like the ones in many gluten-free foods, they will propel you in the direction of conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
People prefer high-density food to healthy options, and this goes back to human evolution and the times of the low availability of calories. Our brain is therefore programmed to prefer high-calorie food to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. Therefore, we prefer a slice of bread (260 calories) to an apple (50 calories.)
The gluten-free food industry
The gluten-free food industry is growing fast, but are those products actually good for our health? It is good to exclude gluten from your diet, but it is not good to do so with highly processed and refined food. Recent studies confirm that what is generally known as a “gluten-free diet” is the cause of obesity, metabolic syndrome epidemic and vascular disease.
Looking deep into the pathogenesis of the vascular disease, it has three components: you need chronic low-grade inflammation that a refined carb in a gluten-free food can trigger. You also need oxidative stress, which oxidises LDL (the ‘bad guy’ cholesterol), which then sets the scene for atherosclerosis, the hallmark of vascular disease.
A ‘positive’ energy balance (high intake, low expenditure) can result in oxidative stress. This alters the intracellular signalling pathways and ultimately leads to insulin resistance, the hallmark of metabolic syndrome and associated vascular disease.
How to beat gluten addiction
- Be aware and alert – view gluten as an addictive substance. This will help you to break the cycle of addiction.
- Start slowly to avoid being overwhelmed and set a goal for a few gluten-free days in the beginning.
- Fasting is another good strategy to kick gluten addiction. When you are fasting, you burn fat instead of sugar. This dramatically reduces your sugar craving, particularly for gluten and other refined carbs. If you find it hard to fast, you can remove carbs from your diet for a couple of days. Lack of sugar will then switch your body to burning fat and ease your craving for sugar and gluten.
- Support your body with high potency multivitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and vitamin C, to enhance your body’s healing.
- Also, help your body with high potency probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (their food) to aid your nutrition and detoxification.
- Work with a functional medicine practitioner, a qualified expert, who can guide you through this process with confidence and help you on your healing journey.
Gluten withdrawal syndrome
Many people feel great when they go gluten-free, but many people feel worse initially as they go through withdrawal symptoms. This is because gluten is addictive. Gluten is broken down into opioid-like proteins, often called Gluteomorphins. Just like morphine. Gluten withdrawal symptoms present with low-grade fever, hand tremors, headaches, stomach cramping, muscle pain, irritability, mood swings, depression, and sensitivity to bright light.
For many, these symptoms are relatively short-lived, lasting a few days in mild cases, but they can last up to four weeks in more severe cases.
These withdrawal symptoms should not stop you from going on a gluten- or grain-free diet – please try and stay the course until the symptoms subside and resolve.
Someone who suffers from yeast overgrowth can experience the same negative symptoms in going gluten-free. Doing so reduces the dietary sugars in your intestine, starving the yeast population. This can lead to what is known as a yeast die-off reaction. Common symptoms include headaches, muscle pain, intestinal bloating, cramping and discomfort, irritability, mood swings and severe sugar cravings.
The most reliable test to know if you are gluten intolerant is genetic testing and to eliminate gluten for 6 weeks and then reintroduce it. The latter could trigger enough symptoms to stop you from eating gluten for the rest of your life!
So, you can see, my friends, that, with gluten-free food, all is not as it seems! My sceptical patient did take my advice – and she decided to stay the course – this will not only have her intolerance to vanish but also NOT to develop any metabolic syndrome risk factors.
Do you suspect that you are gluten-intolerant? Please share your thoughts and ask any questions on this subject, and please do subscribe to the newsletter so that you don’t miss further vital information. Thank you!
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