Modern civilization has faced some incredibly deadly challenges. Bubonic plague, the Great Potato Famine, the Dust Bowl; but nothing quite compares to the terror that’s now upon our society, likely in your very home right now…and that terror is…GLUTEN! Seemingly innocent, even tasty at times- this substance threatens to destroy all things you and I hold near and dear to our hearts. If you have any gluten in your house, evacuate now before it’s too late!
What sounds like an exaggerated news report, is actually not very far off from the information available throughout fad diet magazines and social media gurus here in America. Although some may have you believe Gluten is the key to the gates of Hell, actual scientific research and basic nutritional principles help to prove otherwise. As we continue our bro-science myth busting here on BioLayne, it was time to state the real facts behind gluten, what it is, what it does, and why the guilt should be more on the people encouraging the fear of gluten rather than gluten itself.
Gluten, Sensitivities and Celiac
What exactly is Gluten?
Contrary to what the media may have you believe, gluten actually isn’t a bite-size demon hiding in your meals. It’s a group of structural proteins, which serve as a binding agent common in wheat, rye and barley products. Gluten itself isn’t a source of calories, and currently has no data suggesting it affects weight loss efforts. However, it does support the structure of tasty, often nutrient dense foods such as whole grain breads, cereals and pastas.
Celiac Disease gets talked about more than a high school girl wrapped up in a bad rumor, yet the frequency of such diagnosis are more like the quiet kid in the back always playing hooky. As recent as this year, the occurrence of legitimate medical diagnosis on gluten-related disorders is estimated to be around just 5% of the population. Despite this, the regular use of specialty gluten-free products is somewhere on the range of 12% to 25% of the population. 
Celiac Disease (CD) in itself is a disorder in which consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune response- leading to gastrointestinal disruptions and greatly reduces the absorption of nutrients. For those actually dealing with CD, consuming gluten on a regular basis can certainly create health issues, and eliminating gluten from the diet can be vital for proper health. However, as just mentioned, that prevalence is quite lower than many would be lead to believe through the constant fear mongering of gluten-containing foods by uneducated fitspos.
How is it diagnosed?
For those wondering how to actually find out whether they have CD (generally the only reason you should be avoiding gluten to begin with), visiting a gastroenterologist would be the best move. There, doctors can perform a few tests including biopsies, and testing for specific antibodies, which can help determine the presence or lack thereof, of CD with quite accurate reliability. Before swearing off gluten, if you fear your issues are arising from gluten consumption, make sure to visit an experienced doctor in that field before possibly eliminating something from your diet that isn’t actually causing any harm.
The prevalence, and in particular the accuracy of gluten sensitivity, is a hop topic of debate among fitness and medical professionals. It does seem that some individuals may suffer from GI disruptions after ingesting gluten-containing foods, however it’s believed that the disruption may often be due to irritable bowl syndrome (IBS) rather than actual gluten sensitivities.
Researchers in the UK published a study where in 7,762 non-Celiac participants were asked to complete a survey regarding their dietary needs. In this study, only 0.548% (49 out of over 7,500 people) reported following a gluten-free regiment in order to accommodate for a gluten sensitivity. 
Another survey was published in 2003 in which researchers screened 13,145 participants to determine the prevalence of CD among various degrees of risk groups. The study results reflected a ratio of 1:133 of “not at risk” participants to actually have CD. That’s a mere 0.007% of the population studied. For first and second degree “at risk” participants (those who have a family member with diagnosed CD) was 1:22 (.04%) and 1:39 (.02%), respectively. This is to say that for those with clinically diagnosed CD family members, sure- the likelihood of acquiring CD is there, however not very high. For those without any close family members dealing with CD- there shouldn’t be much fear of gluten-related issues. 
Now it should be noted that surveys, rather than controlled trials, can open up possibilities for misreported or misevaluated information. Although surveys can be helpful in gathering further data on a topic, they should be taken with slight caution. In the case of these studies, we need to account for things such as misdiagnoses or individuals simply just unaware they even have an issue. On the contrary, it also may not accurately account for those sporadically consuming gluten-free foods in an effort to lose fat, but not considering themselves as gluten-free dieters. All of that considered, these surveys do still help to highlight the rather low frequency of non-celiac gluten sensitivities in most populations.
If you’re dealing with significant gastrointestinal issues in which removing certain foods can alleviate or eliminate; then doing so is a no brainer. That said though, the prevalence of such issues is small. On the other hand, if you’re restricting gluten for fat loss purposes, you’re better of putting your focus on other aspects of your nutrition…aspects that will be covered later in this article.
Gluttony, Gut Health & Gluten Sensitivities
In terms of physique athletes, their belief they have gluten sensitivity seems to be pretty common, especially after contest prep. Many athletes finish prep, begin eating more food- then question whether they have a gluten-related disorder as they experience gastrointestinal pain, bloating and fat gain. Although it’s important to totally discount possible coindition, it is equally as important to consider all rational, potential issues before jumping on a bandwagon. Before claiming to be gluten sensitive and forever forsaking your favorite pastry in the name of gut health, there are a few other factors that are likely to play a major part in your current discomfort.
Eyes bigger than your stomach?
The first of those factors is that of simply getting used to feeling “full” again. After an extended dieting period, dieters often jump immediately from a low food intakes to their pre-diet eating habits. Being used to eating relatively low amounts of food each day, then suddenly eating a LOT more food can cause more than just fat gain issues.
We’ve all gone most of the day eating very little, then attend a huge dinner anticipating to eat everyone under the table only to notice ourselves feeling very full early during the meal. This same situation occurs to a greater degree after an extended diet. After going several months on less and less food, our stomachs adjust to the lower food volume. By immediately jumping back to pre-diet intakes, you aren’t giving yourself time to adjust to the much greater food volume- leaving you feeling ultra full and massively bloated.
Many will begin to wonder why they are constantly bloating, looking to food sensitivities since they are so commonly talked about in the media. Instead, often times it may very well be just the need to more gradually add food volume back into your plan, allowing time to accommodate to the increased food consumption.
Restrictive Diets & Gut Bacteria
Quite often, athletes complaining of digestive issues and bloating initially think gluten or another specific substance may be the culprit. Although once again, never say never, many athletes would be surprised how often their current digestive issues are simply from extreme dietary restriction, and not necessarily a certain ingredient in itself.
More and more research is beginning to show a strong connection between gut bacteria and overall well being in humans. What may sound like a bad pitch from a yogurt commercial, maintaining healthy gut bacteria can lead to quite significant improvements in long-term mental and physical health. A 2013 research review helped highlight this by concluding proper gut bacteria can support better neural connections, and actually help improve and/or prevent depression and anxiety compared to those with gut bacteria imbalances.  Other research in the field has shown healthy gut bacteria balance to improve the body’s ability to sufficiently handle stressors, and maintain a better balance of cortisol and other stress-related hormones. 
These alterations in gut bacteria can occur due to a number of factors, including medication (antibiotics), chronic stress, and most interesting to us athletes- dietary habits. By including a variety of nutrient dense foods in our diet throughout each week, we help encourage the proper balance of gut bacteria for mental and physical health. 
On the flip side of that consideration, following a very restrictive diet can have the exact opposite effect. Avoiding certain foods, or even worse entire food groups, for extended periods of time can prompt the reduction or straight-out elimination of certain gut bacteria. Considering how many guru coaches still preach the use of restrictive diets to their clients for entire contest preps or even year round, one can see how gut health may become a concern.
When athletes eventually stop following such restrictive practices, they often add back in the foods they missed, and they make sure to accommodate for lost time. By suddenly adding back in large amounts of a certain food, significant digestive issues can occur as the body struggles to digest the now rather foreign food. This can lead to various GI issues including bloating and stomach aches, which can often be misconstrued as Celiac or other related conditions. In reality, if the athlete were to very gradually add back in a long-term restricted food, certain bacteria strains have an opportunity to replenish, and sufficient digestive health can return in the process.
As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that a strong connection has been made between gut health and weight management and nutrient absorption.  The balance and nutrient density of dietary intake can significantly effect nutrient absorption and even fat loss/muscle growth. Not only could food restriction harm digestive health but also your fat loss or muscle building efforts- compared to gluten that gets much more flak, yet has absolutely no research backing claims of its weight management detriment.
When faced with gastrointestinal issues, many aspects should be considered. That said, the above suggestions may help guide long-term dieters in better deducing the actual cause of their issues, and to avoid fad fear mongering filling the fitness industry with as much crap as a broken septic tank fills a home.
Factors That Actually Matter in your Diet Plan
Start a diet, and someone out there is bound to suggest you cut out gluten, dairy or both from your diet if you hope to lose any fat at all. The reality is, this kind of statement is simply, 100% asinine for “professionals” to make. Calorie intake, the composition of those calories, and the activity level of an individual will determine body composition changes. Considering calories are derived from protein, carbohydrate and dietary fat, as well as alcohol- and gluten isn’t some hidden code name for any of those, it’s pretty clear to see why avoiding gluten just isn’t the answer to fat loss efforts.
Because we at BioLayne actually use science to back our claims, rather than making outlandish statements with no logic behind them, I’m going to delve into just why gluten isn’t the problem, and what aspects of training and nutrition actually effect your body composition.
We hear it all the time, “calories in versus calories out,” is what determines weight gain and loss. The truth is, while that’s correct, it’s not exactly that simple. That said though, it does hold some truth. The calories you consume on a daily basis, as well as the composition of those calories, are going to be the absolute greatest determinant of weight change. Aside from substances nearly void of any nutritional value such as alcohol or trans fats, avoiding any particular ingredient or food isn’t going to drastically improve your fat loss or muscle growth efforts.
When starting a diet or contest prep, many people will suggest cutting out gluten from your diet in order to lose weight more effectively. What those same people fail to realize is that it’s not the gluten avoidance that causes any fat loss if cut from the diet. Instead, it’s simply the reduced calorie intake often seen in those suddenly cutting out any source of grain in hopes of avoiding gluten. In other words, it’s the reduced food intake from removing a food you maybe be eating often that would cause the weight loss, not the removal of gluten itself. Eat the same amount of calories from other non-gluten containing carbohydrate sources, and I assure you body fat won’t magically fall off of you.
Outside the scope of this article, but worth noting, the ratio of protein, carbohydrate and fat you consume is very important since each of the three are metabolized and used differently by the body. For example, people consuming higher protein, higher carb and moderate fat will make significantly different progress than someone consuming low protein, low carbohydrate and high fat diets- even if calories are the same between the two. The different roles of each macronutrient toward health and performance, micronutrient content of each, the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), and even the source of various foods can be important for determining long-term changes in body composition. If you’re interested in learning more about TEF and why various fat sources can effect body composition, be sure to visit my article “Fat Facts: Why Fat Source Matters” here on BioLayne.com.
If you’re feeling sluggish, tired or having digestive issues, your average, daily micronutrient intake is much more likely to be the cause than gluten. More often than I can count, I begin working with clients only to find out until work together, they had been largely neglecting any sort of consistency with their fruit and vegetable intake.
A study published in 2009 showed as little as 1 in 10 Americans were regularly consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.  The real kicker is, potato consumption technically counted as a vegetable, skewing the median intake from 0.72-1.21 cups per day. As many of you know, potatoes are a great food option, but calorically dense and less nutritionally abundant than many classic vegetables such a broccoli, kale etc. Not to mention, higher volume foods like fruits and vegetables greatly help satiety, making it easier to attain and maintain a healthy body composition throughout life as well.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen athletes pretty significantly improve overall energy levels and digestion simply by making a point to very consistently consume a variety of 2-4 servings each of fruits and vegetables, daily. This is pretty easy to believe considering the vast array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients found in fruits and veggies, which can aid in recovery, energy metabolism, and when fiber minimums are met- proper digestion as well. All too often people turn to eliminating gluten, dairy, or some other fad fear to improve their health and well-being, but could have very effectively improved their situation simply by eating a more balanced diet.
Weight Training Periodization
Many non-competitive athletes mistakenly assume they don’t need to weight train, however regardless of your physique and performance goals, weight training consistently can do wonders for improving overall body composition and improving fat loss efforts. Weight training provides much more than just bigger muscles and is a largely underestimated, yet hugely beneficial habit for those looking to improve overall health. If you’re avoiding gluten in hopes of feeling and looking better on the day to day, but not currently following a structured weight training program- getting in the gym consistently will without question benefit you more than avoiding gluten without a diagnosed Celiac or similar conditions.
Additional Benefits of Regular Weight Training:
- Improved insulin sensitivity 
- Better bone health 
- Enhanced cognitive function & reduction in depression rates 
- Greater muscle retention during fat loss effort 
- Improvements in postural support
So why all the Gluten Guilt?
The percentage of population currently dealing with legitimate CD is only around 5%, however the gluten-free food industry has seen growth upwards of $950+ million in retail sales in the U.S. Now either 5% of the population is really putting down those gluten free pizza crusts, or a LOT of people are mistakenly believing switching to gluten-free products will lead to better health and/or body composition.
If someone begins talking to you about how Columbus first found America, you’re likely to begin nodding off to sleep from boredom. Turn on Netflix and watch a documentary about how extraterrestrial aliens discovered American thousands of years before Columbus- and suddenly many are wide eyed and receptive. The reason being, new, elaborate ideas simply gain more interest than topics many assume to already know a lot about.
The same holds remarkably true about nutrition and exercise. Someone told to track their diet consistently, gradually adjust their total food intake, weight train 4-6 days per week and perform reasonable amounts of cardio when dieting based on their weight change and body composition improvements- “yeah, yeah, yeah whatever” is the typical response. Claim to have the answer for 10lbs of muscle growth in 2 weeks with a new fangled, extreme approach that sounds super edgy, that same person is suddenly quite intrigued.
Science is boring to many, and extreme approaches, much like sex, simply sell very well. For someone looking to sell new products and/or simply lack the actual knowledge and experience to get true results for clients simply switch to promoting extreme, outlandish strategies that sound great and lead to a lot of one-time purchases they can cash in on.
Real Science beats Pseudo-Science… Every Time
Slow, sure and scientifically backed may not seem as sexy, but the beauty of science is just that- it doesn’t care what’s sexy, it cares about what works the best. Not every plan marketed by fitness professionals is bogus, but sadly a LOT are. Gluten may be the latest scapegoat in a long line of bogus fear mongering within the fitness industry, but luckily more and more fads are being called out for the hoax they are, and individuals are becoming more adept at assessing what research is saying compared to the local guru down the street. Now we can all sleep soundly tonight, knowing the gluten in our pantries isn’t silently plotting our demise, one bite at a time.
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