The Placebo Effect Of Going ‘Gluten Free’


Eventually it became clear that our emotions, attitudes, and thoughts profoundly affect our bodies, sometimes to the degree of life or death. Soon, mind-body effects were recognised to have positive, as well as negative impacts on the body. This realisation came largely from research on the placebo effect – the beneficial results of suggestion, expectation, and positive thinking. 

Larry Dossey, Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing

Have you ever heard about gluten? I bet you have. It has become the latest buzz word, hasn’t it? Even if you don’t know what gluten is, you have definitely heard all the rumours going on about it. People claim that it causes weight gain, that it is inflammatory, that it causes bloating and it causes autoimmune diseases.

Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives. The sneaky protein is found literally everywhere and manages to find its way even into foods you wouldn’t expect to find it in.

It is the only protein that cannot be digested by human beings. It simply makes its way through the body undigested. It is not harmful to most people but is extremely harmful to a small percentage of the population. Sadly, media tend to apply the harmful effects that gluten has on people with gluten related disorders to the general population. And people believe this nonsense.

This notorious binding agent is poisonous for a small percentage of the population who suffer from coeliac disease, a genetic autoimmune and multi-system condition that is triggered by even small traces of gluten. This is a serious condition in which the body mistakenly attacks the lining of the small intestine in response to gluten.

Some people are also being diagnosed with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which means that nasty symptoms arise with the ingestion of gluten in the absence of coeliac disease or wheat allergy. More research is needed on the latter condition, as current evidence shows that people with gluten sensitivity might not in fact be sensitive to gluten, but to foods rich in FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). Wheat grains are rich in FODMAPs so it might in fact be a FODMAP sensitivity, rather than a gluten sensitivity the person is experiencing.

However, it is likely that not everyone who avoids gluten needs to do so. In fact, the probability is that most can tolerate it just fine. Since there are no validated diagnostic tests for gluten sensitivity, many people are self-diagnosing this condition without medical consultation and are completely changing their diets to avoid gluten. They claim to have symptom recovery or have more energy, that they lose weight or simply feel great. But although some people may in fact have sensitivities to gluten or might even have undiagnosed coeliac disease, there could be other explanations for the miracle health turnarounds once gluten is avoided.

What could the explanation be?

Research shows that avoiding gluten does not result in the health benefits that some people attribute to it. It is more likely that increased energy, healthier skin, nails and weight loss in some, results from eating a healthier diet that does not include a quantity of highly processed and refined carbohydrate foods that happen to contain gluten.

Some natural gluten free foods are very healthy, but supplementing processed foods for gluten free counterparts will actually be worse for your health. So an explanation for the miraculous disappearance of symptoms in many who embark on a gluten free lifestyle change is the placebo effect.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a placebo is ‘a beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment.’

Basically, some people feel better on a gluten free diet just because they expect to feel better. That would be fine, but the problem arises when people respond to the diet for a few months and then the placebo effect wears off. They are then left with a dilemma. To accurately diagnose coeliac disease, it is necessary to consume glutin over a certain period of time. The re-introduction of gluten would be necessary in these cases and people are often not willing to do that. Self-diagnosing gluten sensitivity could also result in other conditions being missed.

The bottom line is this. Gluten is fine for most people. The perceived benefits of a gluten free diet are mostly a trend with no scientific backing. Please consult a doctor if you think you might be sensitive to gluten. If you do not have coeliac disease, wheat allergy or properly diagnosed gluten sensitivity, you do not need to cut out gluten from your diet. Gluten does nothing for the body but is found in grains that are very healthy.

As always, moderation is key.