Another Hit Job: Gluten Sensitivity in the Cross Hairs

August 11, 2014

Twice in one week. 


In 2011 Dr. Peter Gibson published a study that found many individuals are sensitive to gluten in ways that are more subtle than Celiac Disease (CD). CD is a serious and potentially disabling reaction that some individuals have to the protein found in gluten. Dr. Gibson, though, had found symptoms in many individuals who do not have CD.


As the media is portraying it, Dr. Gibson is the epitome of a true scientist. Not satisfied with his initial results, he set out to repeat his experiment, this time with a more stringent protocol. He would control every meal for all participants throughout the duration of the study. 


In his most recent study, Dr. Gibson had a set of patients who described themselves as sensitive to gluten started out for 2 weeks on a FODMAPS diet. This is a diet that eliminates a large range of carbohydrates that can act as digestive irritants. Then subjects were rotated through an exclusively high-gluten diet, an exclusively high-dairy diet, or one that included both. The results? Their digestive symptoms stayed the same on all diets of the test, including the placebo diet that had no restrictions. The conclusion: gluten isn't the problem.


But before you go ordering that fetuccini alfredo, here are the real problems with this study:


First, each of the three diets tested was maintained for only 3 days. Three days! Food allergies typically show up quickly and resolve quickly. Food sensitivities may take days or even weeks of exposure to show up as symptoms, and likewise can take days or weeks to resolve once the exposure stops. Three days is a laughable amount of time to decide that gluten (or dairy) isn't a sensitivity.


Second, and probably the most noteworthy aspect of the study, almost all 31 participants had a significant resolution of their digestive symptoms after 2 weeks on the FODMAPS diet. Rather than headlines announcing FODMAPS to be a significant contributor to digestive complaints, we get the false comfort of hearing that gluten isn't a problem.


Two weeks vs 3 days is a big deal when it comes to assessing food reactions. Further, a lifetime of eating reactive foods will result in changes in "gut bugs" and general digestive health. Those changes are not about to correct themselves in 3 days. This study didn't assess gluten sensitivity. It was meant only to exonerate gluten.


But the media got the headline it wanted, and we can go on spending over $32 billion every year to treat digestive complaints.


At least we can keep eating those sandwiches and pasta dishes.


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