Can today’s chronic health problems really be attributed to a single protein source?


It appears as though more and more people today are suffering from chronic, ongoing health problems. Their symptoms are vague but persistent: inflammation, digestive issues, headaches, exhaustion… a general nagging “un-wellness” that no amount of steam bathing, yoga or massage seems to remedy. Couple that set of symptoms with today’s other persistent health issue—obesity—and a picture forms. Could it be that the lion’s share of our country’s health challenges revolves around what we’re eating?

A few decades ago, we agreed that the problem of excess weight could be addressed with low-fat eating. But we tried that, and the result was more obesity. Ultimately, we began to regard carbohydrates and sugars as our collective dietary boogiemen and looked to reduce those elements in favor of increased consumption of healthy fats and lean proteins. Recently, the low-carb approach has taken a backseat to the gluten-free eating strategy, based on the idea that, by eliminating this one protein found in wheat, rye and barley, we can resolve our chronic health problems.

But is gluten-free eating really the silver bullet Americans have been looking for? Celebrities, trainers and book authors tout the virtues of a gluten-free lifestyle and, thanks to massive media attention, retailers have jumped on the bandwagon. “Gluten-free” has become a household term. Indeed, many report that their new, gluten-free life has been transformative. But is it for everybody?

If your spa is focused on wellness, it’s likely that discussions of gluten-free diets are taking place around you every day. To ensure that you can speak responsibly on the topic, here are some facts and considerations for clients regarding the gluten question.

True Intolerance
The gluten-free diet originated to treat people who have celiac disease, an inherited, autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the small intestines. Three million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease, and it can be serious: A study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with celiac disease who had persistent intestinal damage from not avoiding gluten had a higher risk of lymphoma than those whose intestines had healed.

Celiac disease was initially treated by banishing all grain-based foods from the sufferer’s diet. But in the 1940s, a Dutch pediatrician named Willem Karel Dicke discovered that the disease was exacerbated in his patients specifically after they ate wheat, but not all grains. After years of study, Dicke decided that the gluten element in wheat, rye and barley was the culprit, and his patients were then free to eat rice, corn and certain other grains without distress.

Today, celiac disease is thought to be on the far end of a spectrum of conditions referred to as gluten intolerance or, in some cases, wheat intolerance or allergy. Not surprisingly, symptoms of this potentially debilitating condition include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowels and cramping. However, sufferers often also exhibit low energy, acne and other seemingly unrelated problems. Researchers are studying gluten’s potential link to non-digestion-related health conditions such as migraines, ADHD, sinus problems, hormonal imbalances and arthritis, to name a few.

Regardless of the reasons for trying it, gluten-free eating is no small undertaking. Giving up wheat, barley and rye may seem simple, but with byproducts of those grains included in so many foods (not to mention personal care products), knowing which products are “safe” is a tricky business. Unless a prepared product is specifically identified as gluten-free, it may be a no-no for someone who needs to completely eliminate that ingredient. For example, gluten can be found in processed meats, soy sauce, beer and food additives such as malt flavoring; even corn tortilla chips and French fries may wield ingredients that contain gluten.

Seizing on the fact that a strict gluten-free lifestyle requires diligence and effort and, therefore, support, food and health stores the world over now offer dedicated gluten-free aisles, and restaurants are beginning to label their gluten-free menu items. In fact, gluten-free has become seriously big business. According to a new report from market research firm MarketsandMarkets, sales of gluten-free products in the U.S. hit $4.2 billion in 2012, and are expected to rise to $6.2 billion by 2018.

Healthy, Not Trendy
Danna Korn, author of multiple books including Living Gluten-Free for Dummies (2010, John Wiley & Sons), has been advocating the gluten-free lifestyle for more than 20 years—ever since her infant son was diagnosed with celiac disease. She believes that awareness of gluten has skyrocketed recently not because more people are developing gluten intolerance but because it is finally being more consistently diagnosed. Unfortunately, she adds, too many people treat the gluten-free lifestyle as a weight-loss fad instead of a serious measure toward better health—potentially damaging the diet’s credibility.“There are 300 symptoms that can go along with gluten intolerance,” Korn says. “But people take gluten-free in the wrong direction by making it trendy. Yes, I think it’s the healthiest diet on the planet and you will feel great if you go gluten-free, but what is your motivation?”

Korn suggests that people debating a gluten-free lifestyle first consider their specific symptoms, and that those who suffer from ongoing digestive problems get tested for celiac disease to determine whether or not they have a clear intolerance or allergy that requires a radical change in diet. For people who feel generally unwell or have other health issues they think might be related to diet, she sees no reason not to find out if eliminating gluten helps (provided other diagnoses have first been ruled out). But they should do it wisely.

“There are healthy and unhealthy ways to be gluten-free,” points out Korn, who also notes that a diet of natural foods that includes vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and “good” fats is healthy for just about everybody. When it comes to carbs that are permissible on a gluten-free diet, however, caution is advised. “It’s not that I’m anti-carb, but the glycemic load you take in is important,” she says, citing starches like potatoes and corn as potential problems.

This goes double for diabetics and people looking to lose weight. “‘Gluten-free’ is not a weight-loss diet,” says Korn. Many gluten-free products use wheat substitutes such as refined rice, corn and nut flours, which can greatly increase the caloric, sugar and fat levels in food. “Processed foods are going to make you fat,” she asserts. “It’s great that so many manufacturers are making these gluten-free products for people who need them but these should serve as occasional indulgences. Have one gluten-free cookie.”

The De-junking Factor
Katherine Tallmadge, registered dietician, speaker and author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations (2011, Regnery Publishing), is outspoken about the new dietary wave. “The gluten-free industry is going crazy making tons of money, and for people to copy something movie stars are doing is just faddist,” she says. “It’s particularly galling to the celiac community and people with a real disease.” Tallmadge believes in a plant-based diet with plenty of whole grains and is concerned that, without careful attention to which foods should replace those containing gluten, a person could end up with deficiencies in fiber, iron, folate, calcium, vitamins and/or other nutrients.

It’s undeniable that people who begin a gluten-free plan generally feel the changes immediately: Their digestive problems may resolve. They may report being mentally sharper, having more physical energy, feeling cleaner inside and even happier. However, this phenomenon is easy for anyone to analyze. Just think of how you feel after eating a big plate of pasta versus a leafy, green salad. “When you eliminate gluten, the first thing you give up is all of that wheat-based junk food, so of course you’re going to feel better,” says Tallmadge. “You don’t need to go completely gluten-free to accomplish that.”

The same goes for weight loss, Tallmadge says. People who are overeating even a little will see changes once they cut out processed and junk food. “And people simply feel better when they’re losing weight,” she adds. “Caloric restriction sets off a chain reaction: It lowers inflammation, triggers anti-aging processes in the body, balances insulin, increases blood flow to the brain and improves organ function.”

What’s more, people who use a gluten-free diet strictly to lose weight often gain it back because the initial food plan was too restrictive and couldn’t be maintained. Experts on both sides of the gluten philosophy agree that a high intake of fruits and vegetables is the most important component to a healthy diet.

What About Skin?
Liliana Aranda, owner of Faces By Liliana Mobile Spa , serving Northern California and the greater Phoenix areas, has learned a lot about gluten from the skin’s point of view. Aranda has worked with clients plagued with redness and thickening of the skin, large welts, speckled rashes and burning sensations that were ultimately linked to food allergies. Once the culprit foods were removed from the diet, the skin problems diminished.

What about topical skincare products? Some people with celiac disease are so sensitive that products containing wheat can’t be used on their lips or around their mouths, so Aranda is very watchful of her products. “You have to be really careful,” she says. “I ask during intake, but a lot of times clients don’t know they have the gluten allergy.”

It isn’t always easy to know when a topical product contains gluten, because of the different ingredient names that may be used on labels. “Hydrolyzed wheat protein, barley protein and oat protein are just a few,” says Aranda. “Occasionally gluten is used as an emulsifier. But mainly it’s a thickening, texturizing agent that gives the product its sponge, stretch, volume and density. It’s not there to provide nutrition to the skin. I have been able to find products that use rice or rice bran instead.”

Of course, you should refer any spa client with a severe skin condition to a medical professional. But given the frequent connection between skin problems and food allergies, spas that partner with a nutritionist or dietician (or have one on staff) are in an ideal position to help clients make needed changes
—which, sometimes, includes a gluten-free life

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