Is Gluten Sensitivity A Total Sham?

by Pamela J. Hobart

Good news for those of you reading this article while angrily eating a piece of spelt bread — gluten sensitivity may be a sham. I'll wait until you've returned from the bagel shop to continue.

Gluten-free diets have been all the rage in recent years, especially since a 2011 study seemed to prove that many people (other than sufferers of full-blown celiac disease) are " sensitive" to wheat gluten (rather than totally intolerant), and could also benefit from removing gluten from their diets. This caused even individuals whose health was generally good to try gluten-free diets in an attempt to further boost their mood and performance. A follow-up study has just generated conflicting evidence, though: a researcher who shuffled experimental subjects through a variety of diets containing gluten and other potential triggers found "absolutely no specific response to gluten."

Peter Gibson, an Australian gastroenterologist, had previously conducted a rigorous scientific study which seemingly demonstrated that "non-celiac gluten sensitivity" is responsible for many people's gastrointestinal and other symptoms. But Gibson still didn't know why gluten would cause trouble for people who lack the celiac autoimmune response, and other factors were left uncontrolled. So he conducted another study, using 37 people who were definitely not celiac but who reported experiencing non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The subjects were fed all of their meals in the lab, and their diets were stripped of lactose, preservatives, and a type of carbohydrates known as "FODMAPs" in order to better isolate the effects of gluten. Then subjects rotated through low-gluten, high-gluten, and gluten-free periods.

Some of the subjects still got sick, but the symptoms didn't match the times when gluten was present: the response was all in their heads! The self-diagnosed "gluten sensitive" subjects expected experimental diets to make them feel bad, so it came true psychosomatically. Gibson was forced to conclude that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not supported by the evidence, as it cannot be replicated under carefully controlled conditions. Subjects did feel better on the baseline low FODMAP diet, though — and bread is a prime source of FODMAPs. Gluten-avoiders may actually feel better because they're avoiding FODMAPs, but if the latter is the culprit, other foods need to be cut from one's diet, too (including mushrooms, beans, apples, and chocolate).

However, if you do decide that you want to stick with your probably-optional gluten free diet after all, I have both some bad news and some good news for you. On the downside, don't expect to lose weight. On the upside, there's a gluten-free dating site especially for you!