Dr. Agatston of ‘South Beach Diet’ tackles gluten in new book

Ten years ago, Dr. Arthur Agatston’s South Beach Diet became the latest craze. His diet regimen actually worked. People were losing weight and benefiting from his new “good carb vs. bad carb” guidelines, which aimed to educate people about the right foods to eat and clear up the carb confusion in the world of dieting.

Now, Agatston is back to educate people about the latest trend — gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other hidden sources such as soy sauce.

His new book, The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution, aims to help people understand what it means to be gluten-sensitive as opposed to gluten-intolerant.

“Gluten sensitivity is the real phenomenon even though there is no test for it,” Agatston said. “The only test is to eliminate gluten. And, that is really a challenge. That is what The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution is. The solution is that you eliminate gluten, and then you add back.”

Celiac disease — a digestive illness that damages the small intestine — is the worst form of gluten intolerance that exists. For celiac patients, a strict gluten-free diet is the only way to get rid of the problem. Currently, 1 percent of the population is said to suffer from celiac disease.

The book, written with Dr. Natalie Geary, offers a three-phase diet regimen that will allow people to figure out what their gluten limitations are while losing weight quickly. During the first phase, people will eliminate wheat and other gluten-containing foods from their diet. The foods are gradually reintroduced these foods in phase two and phase three — helping determine just how far one can go before hitting “gluten overload.”

The book offers 20 gluten-free recipes, meal plans, dining tips, travel tips and recommends foods. Agatston says giving up gluten completely is challenging, but for many, the benefits outweigh the temptations.

“Many are not aware of this gluten problem and nobody has explained this and given a program before like we are,” Agatston said. In the end, it is a much easier lifestyle. Being gluten-aware is not difficult. You could do it your whole life. Being gluten-free though, trying to avoid all the minor sources of gluten, is really difficult.”

The term gluten-aware vs. gluten-free was discovered in the first phase of Agatston’s three-phase plan in which he recommends a fairly strict gluten-free diet that means no grains, but doesn’t eliminate the hidden sources of gluten.

“As part of no grains it is no baked goods, no wheat-based cereal, no bread, no pasta, but we didn’t say no soy sauce,” he said. “We never said be absolutely strict. The idea is to be fairly strict, and for many things, you often see a response within days.”

Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a science writer and author, says celiac disease has almost quintupled over the past 50 years, but the milder version of celiac disease — gluten sensitivity — is about four times more common.

“There is some good reason for people to become so cautious about gluten, but that said, it has also become a fad,” Velasquez-Manoff said. “People should actually find out if they are sensitive to gluten before they give it up.”

Besides the dramatic increase in celiac disease, Velasquez-Manoff thinks that becoming gluten-free is trending because giving up wheat ultimately leads to losing weight.

One third of Americans are obese, and another third are overweight. “That is two thirds of Americans heavier than they should be,” he said.

“If your goal is to lose weight and you decide that gluten is the heart of all evil, then you give up everything that has gluten in it, you’re going to lose weight because think about what that means,” he said. “You’re giving up pizza, you’re giving up all cakes, and you’re giving up everything that is sweet almost. You’re pretty much giving up all the lousy junk food you shouldn’t be eating anyway, right?”

“So who knows what the real effect is that prompts you to lose weight. Is it really giving up the wheat or giving up everything that comes with wheat — the sugar and everything else?”

A large study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 collected data from biopsies taken between 1969 and 2008 in Sweden. The study found that people with celiac disease — diagnosed, inflamed or latent — or gluten sensitivity, had a higher risk of death primarily due to cancer and heart disease.

Three million Americans currently live with celiac disease, and the number continues to grow as more people become gluten-aware. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first screening blood test was used to look at celiac disease. And two years ago, the first celiac centers were created. Nearly 50 percent of Americans suffer from some degree of gluten sensitivity.

“We call it gluten awareness because you don’t have to be the same degree of gluten-free as those with celiac disease and there is a spectrum of sensitivity as there is in lactose intolerance,” Agatston said. “People with lactose problems, some can have a little milk in their coffee and have no problems, but if they have an ice cream sundae at night, they’re in trouble.”

There are three main ways gluten can impair health: inflammation, diminished nutrient absorption and an autoimmune response. Agatston refers to this as the “Gluten Trifecta.”

People suffering from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity may experience muscle pain, bloating, stomach pain, brain fog, headaches, congestion and abdominal pain. Because these symptoms can indicate other illnesses, many people suffer from gluten sensitivity without knowing it.

Bread is not fermented how it used to be, which helped predigest gluten. Antibiotics have also destroyed good bacteria that helped digest gluten, and anti-inflammatories, which have become increasingly popular, can create holes in the small intestine. All of this can predispose individuals to gluten sensitivity.

“It’s this perfect storm when people feel congested and achy and lousy, they take more anti-inflammatories and pain relievers and they get put on these antibiotics for congestion when it is really gluten sensitivity,” Agatston said. “It is a vicious cycle and they actually get worse because they are taking medications that make it worse instead of better.”

Agatston said he hopes The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution will educate physicians because he says many are “generally clueless” and ignorant when it comes to gluten.

Gluten-free products are generally more expensive than regular food products. But recipes for people with gluten sensitivity are affordable and there are a range of foods individuals can purchase.

For people who don’t know if they are gluten sensitive, Agatston recommends eating a bowl of pasta. “If you’re gluten sensitive, you will get bloated and feel sick pretty quickly.”

“There are so many people suffering with a condition that can be reversed quite simply,” he said. “Through medical meetings alone, it would take many many more years to do it. You have to go to the public with a popular book.”