Special Father’s Day Feature: Should More Men Eat Gluten Free?

by Melissa Diane Smith

There are good reasons for men to pay attention to symptoms early.

Every single person I meet or hear about with gluten intolerance is female. I feel like the only guy who has it, writes one man on a celiac forum. Do men really have gluten intolerance far less often than women, or do they pay less attention to symptoms that are common signs of gluten intolerance?

No one really knows for sure. No studies have evaluated the prevalence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity in men and women, but two to three times more women than men are diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in the gut to gluten. The difference could be because women tend to see doctors more often than men and therefore are more likely to get diagnosed, some gluten sensitivity experts say.

“I don’t see any reason why there would be that much of a difference in the prevalence between men and women,” says Stephen Wangen, ND, founder of the Center for Food Allergies and author of Healthier Without Wheat. “I think gluten intolerance probably affects just as many men, but men either try to ignore their symptoms, grin and bear them, or don’t realize they’re brought on by something in their diet.”

Dr. Wangen speaks from experience. He had on-and-off troubling symptoms, including chronic ear infections, skin breakouts, swollen knuckle joints, gas, diarrhea, and weight loss, at various times in his life. It wasn’t until he was sitting in biochemistry class in medical school at age 27 that he read a line about celiac disease in a textbook and realized that he might have the condition. He took a blood test that screens for celiac disease and found out he did.

Other men discover they are gluten intolerant in other ways. Lon Lott, a 51-year-old landscape contractor, credits his wife with putting him on a diet free of gluten and other food allergens and solving his ulcerative colitis. One month after he began eating gluten free, he stopped taking the expensive medication he was on and has not had a single flare-up of the colitis for the past two and a half years. “I don’t think I would have found this solution to my health problem on my own,” he says.

Daniel Roberts, a 30-year-old customer service representative, experienced symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), including lack of focus and hyperactivity, since grade school. Although he was diagnosed with an allergy to wheat when he had severe asthma in high school, he did not take the allergy seriously and did not strictly avoid gluten until he married his wife Jodi. When Jodi started cooking gluten free for him three years ago, he noticed a tremendous improvement in his ADHD as well as his digestion and immunity.

On an Internet forum, one man wrote, “I am not gluten intolerant, but I have found I feel much better not eating gluten.” But, men, take note: A positive response to a gluten-free diet is a strong indicator of gluten intolerance. There are no definitive tests to diagnose non-celiac gluten sensitivity, so when blood tests for celiac disease are negative, the most helpful test for detecting gluten sensitivity right now is to eliminate gluten in the diet for two to three months and see if uncomfortable symptoms go away or lessen.

Celiac disease often goes undiagnosed for years and sometimes decades, and it seems to hit men particularly hard. Research shows that men with celiac disease develop female-predominant diseases such as iron-deficiency anemia and autoimmune diseases at the same rate and with the same severity as women with celiac disease. Men also appear to have a greater degree of malabsorption of nutrients, manifested by worse bone density – and celiac disease may progress faster in men. These are all good reasons to pay attention early to symptoms that might be gluten related.

Women, you can help, too. If you think the man in your life has gluten intolerance and won’t admit it, you can persuade him to see a doctor. You also can cook gluten free for the two of you or for the whole family, without even mentioning the food is gluten free, Dr. Wangen says. When women do this, men often reap the benefits.

Selected References:

Bai D, Brar P, Holleran S, et al. Effect of gender on the manifestations of celiac disease: Evidence for greater malabsorption in men. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005;40:183-187.

Bizzaro N, Tozzoli R, Villalta D, et al. Cutting-Edge Issues in Celiac Disease and in Gluten Intolerance. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology, Epub edition, 2010 Dec 23, DOI: 10.1007/s12016-010-8223-1.

Green, Peter H.R., and Jones, Rory. Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic. New York: Collins, 2006, p. 77.

Smith, Melissa Diane. Best test for Gluten Sensitivity a GF Diet Trial, New Journal Article Says. Against the Grain Nutrition News & Notes, February 20, 2011 – see post.

**A shorter version of this story appeared in the June 2011 issue of Better Nutrition magazine.

Melissa’s Comments:

To coincide with Father’s Day, I wanted to do a story about whether more men should eat gluten free from the perspectives of men who have discovered they are gluten intolerant. I am grateful to the many men who responded to my email for men’s gluten-free success stories. In the article, I was only able to cover a fraction of the valuable information and quotes I received from the men I emailed and talked with. Here are a few more stories:

Don Miller, 64, of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, had such severe ulcerative colitis that a doctor suggested a few years ago that he think about having his colon removed. He became so sick that he ended up in the hospital, costing him $40,000 to $50,000 in hospital bills. A while later, he was tested for food sensitivities and with the help of his wife he eliminated the foods, including gluten and dairy, that he was sensitive to, and his condition healed: A recent colonoscopy showed that the colitis is gone and there are no polyps. “I did learn from all of this to not trust my health and well-being to anyone but myself first and doctors only secondarily,” he wrote in an email earlier this year.

Michael Poettker, 56, found out by accident that he was gluten intolerant when he started making meals instead of his wife. “The medical world completely missed the diagnosis even though I was diagnosed with osteopenia (a strong indicator) and also had memory loss, foggy brain, diarrhea, and no energy,” he wrote to me.

The reasons many guys don’t find out they are gluten intolerant vary. Dr. Stephen Wangen and I had a wonderful, free-flowing conversation about the topic. Here are some of his additional thoughts on the topic of why more men don’t investigate whether they are gluten intolerant or not:

For one thing, many guys don’t care. Guys’ bathrooms are unbelievably nasty places. Guys are farting, burping, belching, and having turds that clog toilets or need super-flush toilets, sometimes even bragging about it, and they don’t see those things as being problems. They very likely could have gluten intolerance and not know it.

Also, men ignore it and put it off, or they grin and bear it.

Guys don’t talk about health issues as much. They won’t go to a support group and talk about digestive problems they’re having. In most of the support group meetings I go to, about 90 percent of the people who attend are women.

Another big problem is men like to see something objective from some source of authority. The problem is there is no definitive blood test to test for gluten sensitivity. The best test is doing a gluten-free diet trial and seeing if you positively respond to it, and many men would rather take a pill than change their diet.

Also, gluten intolerance hits a man’s manliness more than it hits women. One of the classic images of being a guy is drinking beer. When you have gluten intolerance, you have to give up drinking beer. Men don’t want to drink wine and they don’t want to say they’re intolerant or sensitive to something in food. Doing that sort of immasculates them.

You have to wonder how many men with big beer bellies have gluten intolerance.

Lon Lott, whose story is included in my article above, had a few more thoughts to share: “The way we’re wired, we think we’re fairly indestructible and strong. It’s a false belief and it’s kind of silly. I didn’t even want to tell my wife [about blood in his stool, which he thought might be cancer] for at least half a year and it was hard to talk about initially. Just the way men don’t want to admit they have a problem, they don’t want to admit they have a health problem and don’t know how to fix it. I tricked my body into thinking everything was okay and I thought that I would just have these things. I had had digestive issues all my life. If it hadn’t had been for my wife Lorraine, I don’t think I would have solved this problem and dug for the answers like she did.”

Though this story is from the perspective of men, I also had a few women who wanted to add to this story and share some helpful thoughts. Here’s one of them from Karen Miller, the wife of Don Miller:

You are definitely onto something [with this story]. Most men will not look into or follow through on a gluten intolerance diagnosis. They definitely need a healthy woman (or other person) in their life (to help them with their diet).

My personal feeling is that very few of us get courses on food and how to cook healthy meals in school when we’re growing up. However, women are socialized to think about food more and often have the responsibility of thinking about family members’ health and putting healthy food on the table. Women often read more self-help nutrition books for themselves or their family and become more aware of the connection of food to health. Even when men are aware of how integral a role food plays in health, many simply don’t know how to cook meals that avoid common allergens such as wheat. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn, even if they are single and don’t have a significant woman in their lives. That kind of scenario, with a single dad and his two young boys, was shown just last night on the June 10th episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Jamie taught the boys to cook a simple healthy meal in about a half an hour and they seemed to love it!

So, this Father’s Day season, in honor of my wonderful Dad who just passed away last autumn after a long healthy life due in large part to my and my mother’s influence on the food he ate, let’s understand that many men have been socialized not to pay attention to food and the relationship it has on their health. But, gradually, in different ways, more men are realizing they, too, feel better when they change their diet and one of the primary ways they can do that is by not eating gluten. Maybe men don’t want to use the words sensitivity or intolerance. But that’s okay. Let’s just say let’s all of us, men and women, eat to feel good, healthy and strong.

Copyright © 2011 Melissa Diane Smith

One Comment to “Special Father’s Day Feature: Should More Men Eat Gluten Free?”

  • […] at the link given above. To end this post on a serious note, I read an article recently that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with celiac disease. There seems to be no medical reason for this, so the assumption […]

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