25 September 2014

Issues of Confounding: Gluten-Free Edition

I read this neat article today that basically say (no shocker here) that many, if not most, people who are sure they have gluten sensitivity, really don't. (Obvious disclaimer that Celiac's and NCGS are real things, that some people DO have.) I feel like we maybe didn't need to fund a study proving that diet fads are diet fads, but that is not really my point here. My actual point about the whole thing is that this study may be 100% correct that most people don't have gluten sensitivity, but it may be 100% incorrect in the idea that the "feeling better" or "lack of symptoms" is "all in people's heads."

What the study may not have looked at, because this kind of data is really hard to collect and analyze, is what overall dietary changes people undertake when they go gluten-free.  In broad terms, eliminating gluten from your diet generally involves cutting out the fluffy white carbs like bread and pasta.  It also removes a lot of processed foods from your menu.  When faced with "having" to eat a diet of mostly fruits, veggies, protein, carefully selected carbs and very little processed food product...well, yeah, you are going to feel better.  This study may have looked at specific markers for gluten sensitivity, but its didn't look at these overall dietary trends, trends that may very well have a huge impact on people's health.

I absolutely believe people when they say that going gluten-free made them feel better, helped with digestive issues and cleared up some chronic conditions.  Eating healthy food made of actual food will do that to you.  Add in that the gluten-free movement often plays well with other healthy lifestyle choices (like workout trends that rhyme with "floss snit") and again, you are definitely going to get people who feel better.

Basically the gluten-free approach to eating may very well make people healthier, or at least feel healthier, but not because of the gluten itself.  When it comes to nutrition, there really never is just one thing at play, it is a holistic (in the actual definition of the word, not the medicinal style) system with roughly 56 bzillion factors at work, That is the tricky thing about research, especially research on the human body.  There is always more at play.  No two bodies are the same, everyone needs to see what works for them.  This study certainly indicates that having gluten sensitivity is more "mass psychosis" and less "an epidemic of digestive issue indicating we should all live in caves and eat only twigs like our ancestors,'' but it doesn't indicate that choosing to eat gluten-free is bad for you.

The take home lesson for non-research minded folks: never assume that a study's conclusions are the only possible answer.  Scientific research really only serves to systematically chug through everything we think we know about a topic and line out what is untrue.  Widespread gluten sensitivity may be an untruth, but widespread health improvements as a result of people eating fewer gluten bearing foods may be very real.