Friday, February 12, 2010

If Food is Information – Gluten Brings “Bad News”

[This is an edited version of the first article by this name that I posted. In the first edition I made an error – yes, I’m human too. An astute reader pointed it out and I thank her for it. Sometimes in our passion to bring news about a certain subject we can rush to interpretation too quickly. The accurate account now stands. –Dr.Vikki]

As clinicians we like to talk to our patients about food being fuel. Whether or not you love what you’re eating foods’ ultimate purpose is to fuel your body. An intact small intestine breaks down the food into fuel, and that fuel is delivered to all your cells via your bloodstream. The cells, now well fed, can do their respective jobs.

But food is more than just “fuel” it is “information”. On a gross level we could divide foods into two categories: pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory. Pro-inflammatory foods give information to the body that causes it to break down and develop disease states. Support for this statement is found in the 2009 article published in Cancer Research, [69(11):4827-4834] titled “Intestinal mucosal inflammation leads to systemic genotoxicity in mice”. In this study it was found that mucosal (cells lining the gut) inflammation contributes early on to genetic instability necessary for progression and development of colorectal cancer.

Anti-inflammatory foods protect the body and allow it to heal and maintain health. In this category we find the foods that are high in anti-oxidants such as fruits and vegetables.

Gluten is a pro-inflammatory food in affected individuals. The information it brings to the body is that of damage and destruction and a forwarding of disease. But when we remove gluten from our diet should we remove all grains? Must we be cautious of getting our complex carbohydrates in sufficient quantity from fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans and perhaps whole gluten-free grains? While the article I’m about to cite only examined 10 people, the results were interesting.

In 2009 (May 18)the British Medical Journal published an article titled “Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet on Gut Microbiota and Immune Function in Healthy Adult Human Subjects.”. [As you may recall, “microbiota” refers to the population of indigenous microorganisms found in our intestines.] In this article the authors state that
most celiac patients treated and untreated with a gluten-free diet have unbalanced microbiota that can play a pathogenic [disease-causing] role that may constitute a risk factor for celiac.

The objective of the study was to analyze the impact of a gluten-free diet on the composition and immune function in healthy subjects to gain insights into the interactions between diet and gut microbes.

The results suggest that a gluten-free diet may influence not only the composition but also the immune function of the gut microbiota in healthy individuals, without the influence of any underlying disease, parallel with reductions in polysaccharide intake. When these 10 “normal”, non-gluten sensitive individuals were put on a gluten-free diet for 30 days their gut microbiota was found to be less healthy after the gluten-free diet than it was prior.

Now the authors state that while the diet of the subjects was not much changed, their polysaccharide content (complex carbohydrates) was reduced. We all know the importance of getting enough fiber in the diet to maintain a balanced and healthy microbiota. And even in my obvious gluten-sensitive patients, the initial few weeks of removing gluten often results in increased constipation due to a loss of fiber from the previous gluten-containing diet. So you understand my healthy skepticism after seeing this article. I think the ultimate conclusion of this article is flawed based on the fact that the studied subjects did not replace the gluten in their diet with adequate healthy fiber.

So the takeaway is this: if you’re gluten-free, please don’t negate the importance of the healthy fiber found in fruits, vegetables and other forms of complex carbohydrates. I also think that everyone should consume about 20 billion CFU (colony forming units) of a variety of probiotics each day. This is easily accomplished via 1 or 2 capsules and is quite important in those who have suffered from a leaky or damaged small intestine. It may very well help you to keep a healthy balanced microbiota that is anti-inflammatory in nature.

Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.

To your good health,

Dr Vikki Petersen
Founder of HealthNOW Medical CenterCo-author of “The Gluten Effect


Anne said...

I am confused. The abstract of the article you mention says "Therefore, the GFD led to reductions in beneficial gut bacteria populations and the ability of faecal samples to stimulate the host's immunity."

How is that good if the beneficial gut bacteria are reduced? I cannot get a hold of the complete article. Does it say something other than what the abstract says? I know sometimes abstracts can be misleading.

Laurie D. said...

I came to this conclusion several months ago when I started to read about the Paleo/Primal movement in food. I no longer eat any grains - they are not nutritionally necessary - and I feel even better than when I just went gluten-free. There are strong evolutionary reasons for this. My blog is

I post that not to toot my own horn, but because I have numerous links on the sidebar (including to this site) that discuss the primal way of eating. In a nutshell, it promotes pastured or grass-fed meats with full fat, vegetables, fruits, some nuts and some dairy (if tolerated). Starchy vegetables, all grains, and processed, especially sugary, foods are out. It's the way our genes have programmed us to eat.

Probably the most influential book I have read is Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories. It is an excellent explanation of how grains and excess carbs are killing us.