Gluten Sensitivity May Not Really Exist

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Earlier this month Jimmy Kimmel hilariously showed American's torrid relationship with gluten when he asked random people on the street if they knew what it was. Despite the majority of people saying they eat a gluten-free diet, not a single person could explain what gluten was. (Watch the video here.)

This does not surprise Peter Gibson, Ph.D, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI unit at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, who has studied the much-vilified protein extensively. Up until a year ago, he would have agreed with them that gluten is harmful and should be avoided. But in one of the most stunning reversals in science, this week he recanted his earlier work on gluten sensitivity saying that his latest—and most rigorous— study shows exactly what many health professionals have been saying all along: Gluten sensitivity simply doesn't exist. 

In 2011, Gibson seemed to flout that idea when he published a widely cited study that found gluten negatively affected people, even those with no medical diagnosis of celiac disease. The protein (found in wheat, barley, and rye) has been thought to cause symptoms from brain fog to stomach pain, a condition many people call gluten intolerance or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Anyone with NCGS does not have celiac disease—an illness where the body cannot digest gluten and the protein destroys the lining of the intestines—but rather a collection of symptoms they experience after eating bread, pasta, and other gluten-containing products. 

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Now Gibson says he got it wrong. Unsatisfied with his 2011 findings, he devised a more rigorous study to examine whether it was gluten the people were reacting to or something else. And he did not kid around: Thirty-seven people who did not have celiac disease but did have NCGS participated. Gibson provided every single meal for the duration of the trial, making sure to strip out anything that could cause a potential reaction including lactose, certain preservatives, and fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbs (known as FODMAPs). For the first two weeks, subjects were fed the low-FODMAP diet; then they were given one of three diets containing different levels of gluten or whey protein isolate. Each subject shuffled through each diet so that they could act as their own control, Gibson explains. "With such a design, you can get very powerful results and leave less up to chance," he says. Lastly, Gibson collected nine days worth of stool and urine samples. He then repeated the experiment a second time.

Gibson discovered that every participant felt worse on each study diet, regardless of whether the diet included gluten. All subjects reported that pain, bloating, nausea, and gas increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Subjects on the second experiment reported the same thing, saying that their symptoms worsened even when it turned out the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet (i.e their diets hadn't changed at all). 

"We are convinced, at least in our 37 subjects, that gluten was not the main culprit in their gut symptoms," Gibson says. 

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But the million-dollar question remains: Does gluten belong in your diet? Gibson says it depends upon why you went gluten-free in the first place. It's possible that FODMAPs (which are found in wheat) might be responsible for the symptoms thought to be caused by gluten intolerance. So the reason why you might feel better when you cut out the bread, beer, and processed foods is because you're reducing the number of FODMAPs in your diet. In other words, Gibson doesn't believe gluten is causing your stomachache, but it's possible that something is—it's just hard to say what, exactly.

Even if you feel like gluten is making you sick (and there are many who are not convinced by this study), you don't necessarily have to take all grains out of your diet. Instead, go for gluten-free picks like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, or popcorn. 

Do you buy this study or do you think it's bull? Sound off below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine!

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