Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Open Letter to Gluten-Free Skeptics

I've been noticing, here and there online, a significant backlash against gluten free (GF) diets and dieters. You may have noticed the same thing - snarky comments like:

  • Oh, did a doctor diagnose you with celiac? No? Then why are you wasting your money?
  • Gluten free food section! For weak minded people who like overpaying for products that won't help them lose weight!
  • Gluten free - the latest fad diet. Would you like some homeopathic remedies with that rice flour muffin, sir?
And so on.

I can imagine many reasons for this backlash. Many people dispute the evidence in favor of the benefits of a GF diet (or think there is NO evidence). Many people see it as a scam to sell overpriced substitute products. I'm sure many GF proponents overstate the evidence for this lifestyle, and that can make scientifically minded people cranky (and justifiably so). And, like with many other lifestyles, people who see benefits from it are often... shall we say, aggressive... about promoting it. And that can be obnoxious. I get that.

So I'm writing this open letter to the snarkiest, angriest, most ticked-off, bread enjoying, GF hating person out there on the internet:

Dear GF Skeptic:

I gave up gluten in 2010. At the time I had no symptoms of gluten sensitivity - no digestive issues, no overt symptoms of problems. No diagnosis of celiac. I was, however, obese (and have been for most of my life), and prone to uncontrollable binge eating. I gave it up as an experiment - not sure that it would help me, just hoping.

And it did.

I've been leaner, and generally healthier, during the past 3 years than at any prior time in my life. And this hasn't been an easy 3 years - it's been very stressful (for reasons having nothing to do with food), yet despite lots of travel and lots of serious life changes, I've been able to lose most of my excess fat and keep it off, without very much effort

This was not my first attempt at leaning out - I've tried many different eating strategies, from low fat to low carb to vegetarianism to intermittent fasting - over the years. None of them "stuck" until I went gluten free.

At this point, I can imagine many things you might be thinking. "n=1 doesn't prove anything." "Show me the science to back up any of your claims." "So why should I go gluten free? I'm not obese."

Here's my answer: You are correct. n=1 does not, in fact, prove anything. I don't have compelling science to show you (I'm not saying there isn't ANY science, or that there never will be, but I'm not going to argue about what's available right now). I'm not even necessarily telling YOU to try a GF diet.


Even if I DON"T have dozens of double blind studies published in peer reviewed journals showing that a GF intervention reduces inflammation, improves digestion, and leads to weight loss, I DO have evidence that it vastly improved MY life and health. I have the size 40 pants in my closet to prove it. And please remember - I had tried VERY MANY other things before going GF, and couldn't stick to any of them. And I've been lean(ish) and healthy for over 3 full years on GF, with very little effort, and in every other way those 3 years should have packed MORE pounds onto my body (divorce, career change, moved 5 times).

And I bet you know at least a couple of people with similar stories.

Is it possible that those of us who benefit from GF diets are outliers? That we represent only a tiny portion of the population? Of course. I have seen MANY people try a GF diet and see very little benefit. Maybe they didn't give it long enough, or were eating hidden sources of something damaging, or maybe... they just don't need to be gluten free. I have no idea.

But as much as YOUR argument that I don't have science proving gluten is bad for everybody - nobody has any science showing that NOBODY benefits from a GF diet.

Let me reiterate: NOBODY has ever done even a single study that shows in any sense that NOBODY benefits from eliminating gluten from their diet.

If I were recommending that you eliminate something important from your diet, you'd have every right to hold me to a higher standard. If anyone says to avoid meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables, or berries entirely from your diet you should be VERY skeptical - because they'd be telling you to eliminate a source of important nutrients from your diet. Not that you CAN'T eliminate any of those categories - you can probably eat a healthy diet that skips any one of those categories - but you're definitely giving up some important stuff, and you'll have to be careful to replace those nutrients.

What do we give up when we give up gluten? Please don't say carbs, or fiber - there are PLENTY of carb and fiber sources that aren't wheat, and I'm not talking about anything exotic - potatoes, rice, and vegetables are not fringe foods in our society that can only be purchased in specialty stores. The fact is that there are NO nutrients in wheat that aren't quite easy to get with other foods (and people will argue about the necessity of carbs and fiber anyway, but I don't want to address that here).

If I were to say that everybody SHOULD give up gluten, you'd have every right to be skeptical. But I'm not. If I started going into details regarding mechanisms by which gluten harms you, we could start a biochem knowledge war that neither of us is really equipped to wage. But I'm not.

Here's my claim - and the biggest claim made by sane GF advocates:

A gluten free diet seems to be very helpful to SOME people. If you are struggling with your bodyfat levels, systemic inflammation, or digestive problems, you MIGHT want to TRY a gluten free diet for a while to see if YOU ARE ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BENEFIT.

I'm not promising that going gluten fee will turn you into Wolverine - or even into Hugh Jackman. I'm not promising it will help YOU lose weight. Or take better craps. I have no idea what percentage of the population would benefit from a GF diet - maybe it's 1%? Maybe it's 20%? Maybe it's 100%? I have no idea.

But I DO KNOW that it's NOT 0%. Some portion of the population sees dramatic improvements in health from going gluten free. And the nutritional cost of giving up gluten is pretty much nothing - there's no important nutrient in wheat that you can't get from potatoes, rice, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, berries.

Does going gluten free suck? It sure does. I miss pizza, and bagels, and brownies, and cookies... I love that stuff.

But I don't miss my size 40 pants. Or feeling crappy all the time.

So, if YOU are overweight, or have digestive issues, and maybe have already tried other interventions, and not found success... maybe it's time to try this whole GF thing?

You might be mocked by internet trolls or derided by science nerds talking about evidence based practices. And I CANNOT promise that you will be any better off for having tried it. I can't prove that gluten is bad for everybody, or that you're one of the people who will be better off eschewing it. But I CAN ABSOLUTELY prove that it's very, very helpful to SOME people. And you might be one of them.

That's the part that I find heartbreaking - I KNOW GF was a huge part of the solution for me. I strongly suspect that's its part of the solution for LOTS of other people (just because I find it hard to imagine that I'm special or unique). Yet so many smart people are soooo skeptical - and let's be honest, if you're arguing that it's IMPOSSIBLE that being gluten free will benefit any particular individual who hasn't tried it, then you're actually on weaker footing than I am, scientifically speaking.

Once again: if you are struggling with digestion, weight, or inflammation, and you've tried other things and failed, please try eating gluten free. Give it a month. If you don't feel better, eat a huge pizza and breath a sigh of relief that you can again do so. If you DO feel better, then... you'll be feeling better.

And maybe think twice before you mock the soccer mom heading over to the gluten free aisle at Whole Foods. She might be sheepishly following a fad diet with no real thought or understanding, but she might be fitting into her size S yoga pants for the first time since she was a teenager thanks to her switch to a gluten free lifestyle.


(now needing a belt when wearing size 32 pants)