What’s Bugging the Gluten Blamers?

Kansas Summer Wheat and Storm Panorama

In November, Dr. Tom O’Bryan of theDr.com gathered 29 researchers, clinicians and nutritionists to pool their intellectual and experiential resources for a Gluten Summit. Rye and barley also contain the protein they deem toxic, but wheat is by far the most consumed food product of the genre.

One of the interesting features of the gluten debate is that more than one problem is involved. It is accepted now that people with celiac disease must avoid gluten completely. But that’s genetically a whole different thing from gluten sensitivity, although either condition can be associated with “leaky gut syndrome” or increased intestinal permeability. Dr. Daniel Leffler of the Celiac Center in Boston, who was not at this summit but is a good explainer, puts it like this:

The cells lining the intestine are linked together by a complex of proteins known as “tight junctions.”… It has been suggested that if these tight junctions are not working well, proteins and even microorganisms might be able to get into the body.

It is not at all clear whether leaky gut is a cause of illness, a complication of illness or a just a result of illness. For example in celiac disease, we do not know whether a problem with tight junctions leads to the development of celiac disease and possibly other autoimmune disorders (cause of illness), occurs due to celiac disease and then causes other medical problems (complication of illness), or occurs secondary to celiac disease.

The theory is that when debris starts circulating in the body and the immune system reacts, what suffers first is the patient’s weakest system. So the patient presents with various and seemingly unrelated symptoms, and it’s difficult for a diagnostician to tell what’s going on. In fact gluten blamers are apt to feel that the medical profession is about a generation behind in recognizing the problems generated by gluten. We’ll limit the attention here to what is alleged to impact obesity in children and adults.

Dr. Rodney Ford, a pediatric gastroenterologist and expert on gluten as an allergen, gave an address titled “The Surprising Ways Gluten Sensitivity Can Affect a Child’s Health.” He laments that when celiac disease isn’t diagnosed, gluten remains in the diets of children who are experiencing growth failure, psychiatric problems and difficulty in school. The reluctance to acknowledge that their illnesses might be traceable to gluten sensitivity or allergy strikes him as tantamount to child abuse.

Tom Malterre of Whole Life Nutrition is a proponent of the unproven opioid peptide addiction theory. For the summit, he used the “perfect storm” metaphor to describe the cumulative interaction of gluten, gut flora imbalances and environmental toxins. Clinical Nurse Specialist Nora Gedgaudas is also convinced that gluten is the unrecognized root of many cases of ill health and obesity, saying, “The inherent presence of what are called exorphins in grains (morphine-like compounds) make gluten-containing grains quite addictive for large numbers of people and leave many in frank denial of the havoc it can wreak.”

The views of Dr. Peter Osborne can be discovered from his video presentation, “Gluten causes weight gain by damaging muscle.” Summit participant Sayer Ji associates the consumption of wheat with more than 200 adverse health effects, noting, “Wheat grain-fed cattle, while much sicker, are always heavier. Grass-fed, on the other hand, are healthier and yet weigh less. Certainly, therefore, the notion that feeding wheat to mammals may increase their weight is not novel.”

Biohacker Dave Asprey is definitely anti-gluten, and told the assembly how the things we eat trigger food cravings. The views of summit presenters Drs. Mark Hyman, Daniel Amen and William Davis have already been discussed. Fitness and nutrition expert JJ Virgin sees gluten and obesity going hand-in-hand:

Gluten contains lectins, which can bind to insulin receptors and create insulin resistance. They can also bind to your intestinal lining, causing you to store more calories as fat. To make things worse, lectins can trigger leptin resistance, which makes you hungrier even after you’ve eaten a full meal…. Most gluten-containing carbohydrates also raise your blood sugar, which triggers an insulin response. Higher insulin levels do one thing really well: store fat.

Not connected with the summit are the findings of other researchers who are trying to discern why children diagnosed with celiac disease and following a gluten-free diet (GFD) might nevertheless, and contrary to expectations, be obese. A report from the University of Milan’s Department of Pediatrics discusses a study in which 72% of children in the strict GFD group were overweight or obese, as compared to 51% of kids who “cheated” on the GFD, and 47% of the healthy-weight control group. The report says:

On the one hand, there is evidence that good compliance with GFD is associated with a positive effect on anthropometric parameters, including: the reduction of fat and the recovery of lean body mass, normalization of body mass index in both previously underweight and overweight subjects and acceleration of linear growth. A study conducted in children with CD and obesity at diagnosis showed a significant reduction in BMI after 12 months of GFD. Another study … found a lower frequency of being overweight and of obesity in children with CD, both at diagnosis and during GFD, compared to healthy controls.

The conflicting data may in part be caused by differences in the timing of anthropometric assessment. Many children with CD, after introduction of GFD, may initially gain excessive weight and only thereafter start to show catch-up growth and normalization of weight.

The phrases “conflicting data” and “controversial issue” occur frequently in discussions of these matters, a state of affairs that will probably continue for some time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Gluten Summit,” TheGlutenSummit.com, November 2013
Source: “Living Gluten Free,” Diet.com, 05/18/10
Source: “Dr. Rodney Ford Interview,” GlutenFreeSociety.org, 2010
Source: “5 Ways Gluten Makes You Fat, Sick & Nutrient-Deprived,” JJVirgin.com, 05/21/12
Source: “Wheat Gluten Newly Confirmed To Promote Weight Gain,” GreenMediaInfo.com, 01/06/13
Image by James Watkins


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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
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