Going gluten-free: Why are there more food allergies now?

Choosing gluten-free may be the answer to your health concern.
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Choosing gluten-free may be the answer to your health concern.

OPINION: I think we've all experienced this: Sitting at a restaurant with a group of friends, everyone orders, meals arrive, but there's a problem. One of your friends has innocently ordered the chicken, only to find it's not gluten-free when landing in front of them. To the embarrassment of the table the meal gets returned.  

So, what's the deal with gluten and why all the fuss?

Gluten is a complex protein found in wheat, barley and rye and testing I've done over a decade on clients shows that up to 70 per cent of people have an immune reaction to it. One study showed that gluten increased inflammation in everybody that ate it. When I say 'inflammation' think aches and pains. For many people reducing gluten in their diet and going gluten- free helps hugely to reduce this.

An example of this is my neighbour, a salt of the earth hunting/ fishing/ welding machine in his forties - the trouble is he's worn out his knees and needs to take daily medication for pain control. Three months later on a gluten-free diet, gone are the pies and beers associated with his lifestyle - and gone is his knee pain. Another side effect of the new diet? He's lost 17kg and is feeling years younger.

In fact, being gluten-free is now becoming so commonplace that some might say the end of the croissant nigh.

I hear you saying: "Hang on Ben, the croissant is sacrilege, haven't we been eating wheat and gluten containing grains for years? How come it's only become a problem in the last couple of decades?"

Nutritionist Ben Warren.
SUPPLIED

Nutritionist Ben Warren.

Well, yes, we have been eating these foods for thousands of years, but the modern-day wheat most of us eat now is different. Why is this? It can be traced back to Norman Borlaug (read more about it here), an incredible biologist and humanitarian who led the hybridisation of wheat to give us the high yielding, highly disease-resistant, dwarf varieties of wheat we now have. 

Unfortunately, unknowingly to Borlaug, in making disease-resistant wheat the lectin levels in each grain were concentrated 10 to 100-fold, depending on the variety of wheat. Lectins are a molecule that plants make to protect themselves from the environment. These lectins have now been implicated in causing serious damage to our gut, which leads to gluten intolerance and the resulting immune reactions and inflammation associated with its consumption.  

The bottom line is that the bread we are eating today is nothing like the bread your grandmother ate.

Not only is the bread different to grandma's, but just about every aspect of the food we now eat is different. We are consuming more simple sugars than any other time in history. These simple sugars feed unfriendly strains of bacteria and yeasts in the gut that throw out the delicate balance of our gut biome, where beneficial bacteria help control our immune responses to food. We are also exposed to more environmental chemicals than ever, which alter our gut biome and negatively impact our immune responses.

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On top of this, we are eating foods that are nutrient deficient due to the proliferation of processed foods and depleted nutrients in our soils, resulting in key nutrient deficiencies that control our immune system, notably zinc, vitamin A and D.

OK, I hear you now saying, "Ben, this doesn't make sense… What about the French paradox?". I hear you. The French paradox talks to the fact that the French eat a lot of bread. Baguettes, croissants and pastries are the norm, yet they have very good health outcomes for a Western world. There are a lot of factors that contribute to the French paradox, but it's interesting to note that the French have generally not adopted the new modified varieties of wheat. French bakers are still using the traditional Duram type varieties. This is why when you buy proper French bread it goes off (and rock hard) by the afternoon. These traditional varieties also have much lower lectin and gluten levels than modern wheat, resulting in a lower immune response to the food. Voila.

So, the next time you're in France by all means grab a croissant. But until then, if you have any health concerns at all, I recommend you go gluten-free. And if there's nothing wrong with you, well then I don't mind you having just a little bit.   


Ben Warren is a clinical nutritionist and holistic health expert. He is currently completing his phD in nutrition and mental health. Ben will join us for a live chat at 8am Friday on stuff.co.nz

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