THE BLOG
12/11/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Ask JJ: Science Behind Gluten-Free Diets

E_Y_E via Getty Images

Dear JJ: Over the past year I've noticed fatigue and other symptoms of gluten intolerance. I discussed doing a gluten-free diet with my doctor, which he condescendingly dismissed as a "diet devoid of science." I know you've written a lot about going gluten-free. Can you shed some light here?

As more experts and studies praise its benefits, I'm baffled anyone still claims a gluten-free diet is bogus or scientifically unsubstantiated.

In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, researchers discussed "the beneficial effects of gluten-free diets in reducing adiposity gain, inflammation and insulin resistance." All three benefits from going gluten-free become significant, so let's look at each more closely.

Inflammation
"Low-level inflammation reactions to gluten trigger the same problems even if you don't have full-blown celiac disease but just have elevated antibodies," writes Mark Hyman, M.D., who adds 7 percent of the population has gluten sensitivity.

Among those inflammation culprits, gluten can trigger the release of zonulin, a protein that loosens your gut's tight junctions (hence the term leaky gut). Suddenly, proteins and toxins that shouldn't pass through your gut wall can slip into your bloodstream, igniting an immune response and inflammation.

"Zonulin breaks up the tight junctions or cement between the intestinal cells that normally protect your immune system from bugs and foreign proteins in food leaking across the intestinal barrier," says Hyman. "If you have a 'leaky gut,' you will get inflammation throughout your whole body and a whole list of symptoms and diseases."

Beyond ditching gluten, focus on anti-inflammatory foods like wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and freshly ground flaxseed.

Insulin Resistance

Gluten contains lectins, sugar-binding proteins that studies show can cling to insulin receptors and create insulin resistance.

"Insulin resistance (also called hyperinsulinemia) is a physiological condition associated with diabetes and heart disease, as well as gout, erectile dysfunction, and fatty liver disease," writes Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D. "[I]nsulin resistance is now recognized to link to many chronic diseases related to Type 2 diabetes, which as a group constitute the largest cost to the health care system."

It isn't your imagination eating a few pieces of bread before your meal makes you hungry. Lectins in gluten can also trigger leptin resistance, where your brain doesn't get this hormone's cue to stop eating so you mindlessly dive into second helpings. Researchers in one study published in BMC Endocrine Disorders noted lectins contain "sufficient properties to cause leptin resistance."

Weight Loss Resistance

Combine insulin and leptin resistance with leaky gut and inflammation, and you can begin to connect the dots about how gluten can stall fast, lasting fat loss.

Most gluten-containing carbohydrates also raise your blood sugar, which elevates insulin levels. Chronically high insulin levels mean your body stores rather than burns fat.

Nixing gluten doesn't mean you should load up on gluten-free junk foods, which can have as much if not more sugar than their regular counterparts.

"The $10.5-billion gluten-free food and beverage industry has grown 44 percent from 2011 to 2013," writes Jill S. Brown in The Huffington Post. "There's also a 'health halo' surrounding these foods, meaning people think they are doing something healthier by eating gluten-free."

Nature made its own gluten-free diet with a deserved health halo: Lean protein, healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, leafy and cruciferous veggies, slow-release high-fiber starches like quinoa, and low sugar-impact berries are all naturally gluten-free.

If you're still unconvinced going gluten free can benefit you, take my challenge and pull gluten for three weeks. Do you notice symptoms like headaches and fatigue diminish or disappear? Do you feel a new normal? Are the scales finally budging?

Seeing becomes believing, and improvements over those three weeks could make you gluten free for life. You've got nothing to lose except inflammation, insulin resistance, and that excess weight.

In what ways has going gluten free improved your life? Share yours below. And please keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.