Going gluten free has been all the rage lately, and there’s definitely a lot to be said for cutting gluten out of your diet. However, there is a wide range of gluten sensitivities and allergies that could be present, and also a range of reasons why you might consider going gluten free. It’s important to understand what gluten is, and the benefits of avoiding it.
Gluten is the protein in wheat and other glutinous grains, which include barley, spelt, rye and oats. You can think of gluten as the component of bread products that gives it that sticky, fluffy texture. Due to its ability to bind, it is also used in endless products (food and other) such as ice cream, condiments, soy sauce, shampoo and personal hygiene products.
See a complete list of foods that contain gluten here.
Celiac disease (CD) is an autoimmune disease that is the most extreme end of the gluten sensitivity spectrum. If you suffer from celiac disease, you will have extreme reactions to gluten, often even if you eat foods that have been prepared in the vicinity of gluten and were cross contaminated. Shockingly, it is suspected that 80% of CD sufferers are undiagnosed. However, you don’t have to have full-blown Celiac Disease to experience problems stemming from gluten in the diet, or to benefit from going gluten free.
If you suspect a gluten sensitivity or allergy, you can undergo an elimination diet for a month or two where you cut gluten out completely (and this means NO cheating, 100% elimination), and then re-introduce it to see if symptoms are provoked. This is the best way to assess sensitivity, because often, they are difficult to test for (except in the case of CD).
Common symptoms of gluten intolerance include:
- Muscle weakness
- Brain fog
- Skin problems such as acne
- Joint and bone pain
- Bloating and gas
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation
How Gluten Causes Problems
The primary phenomenon at the root cause of many conditions connected to gluten is called leaky gut syndrome (otherwise known as increased intestinal permeability). When a sensitivity or allergy to gluten is present, the lining of the gut becomes damaged over time, meaning that toxins and molecules pass through the bloodstream that should not be allowed to enter. But, since the gut lining has been damaged, these molecules are allowed to pass through, and the immune system launches an attack. This creates generalized inflammation, which is a major contributor to the health conditions mentioned above, as well as hormonal imbalances and weight loss resistance (the inability to lose weight).
Studies have shown that gluten can contribute to GI symptoms in all individuals (regardless of if an actual allergy or sensitivity is present), and another study shows that there is a good possibility that gluten is connected to certain neurological disorders. Gluten allergies have also been connected with various autoimmune diseases, so if you suffer from one yourself, cutting out gluten should be top priority.
Another important point to consider is that one of the reasons gluten sensitivities/allergies have been on the rise in recent years is due to the way we process grains in western society. Many gluten containing foods today are higher in the protein, and also stripped of other nutrients that our bodies require to effectively break-down and assimilate gluten, such as fiber and important enzymes necessary for digestion.
A 2009 study published in the Scientific American Journal explains the following:
“Turning to the biological effects of gluten, investigators learned that repeated exposure…causes the villi, fingerlike structures in the small intestine, to become chronically inflamed and damaged, so that they are unable to carry out their normal function of breaking food down and shunting nutrients across the intestinal wall to the bloodstream (for delivery throughout the body).”
The study goes on to say that, fortunately, if a gluten sensitivity is caught early enough, these effects can be largely reversed by cutting gluten out of the diet and healing the gut.
Is Going Gluten Free Enough?
There are several important points to consider when going gluten free, especially if symptoms like those mentioned above are present.
A Gluten Free Diet Does Not Equal A Healthy Diet
As a Nutritionist, I see this as being a common misconception. While gluten is a major irritant that promotes inflammation in many people, simply going gluten free does not equal a healthy diet, and might not clear up symptoms in and of itself.
Due to the gluten free trend in recent years, many food manufacturers have duped consumers into believing that their gluten free packaged foods are healthy. The truth is, most gluten free products (aka, foods that are not naturally gluten free, such as veggies, meat, etc.), usually contain the same harmful ingredients as any other packaged foods, like artificial colorings and flavorings, binders and chemical agents.
To healthfully go gluten free, it is key to focus your diet on foods that naturally do not contain gluten, such as high quality meats, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like avocados, olive, coconut and flax oils, ghee, grass-fed butter and nuts and seeds. Gluten free grains might be fine for some people, too, which include rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, sorghum, teff, and certified gluten free oats.
You Might Need To Eliminate All Grains For Awhile
If you find that you are sensitive to gluten but symptoms persist, you might find that going completely grain-free for a period of time is what helps to clear up your condition(s). Many non-glutinous grains have similar molecular structures to gluten, and also increase intestinal permeability and inflammation in sensitive individuals.
Remember, other foods that are equally as inflammatory include refined carbohydrates and sugars.
Gluten sensitivity can be a primary cause of common symptoms, and cutting it out (at least for a time) can prove beneficial. Another bonus is that when you eliminate gluten from the diet (as long as you stick with naturally gluten free foods) you will be, by default, cutting out most refined carbohydrates, which are a leading cause of weight gain. And even if you find that a little bit of gluten doesn’t cause any problems, remember that it is an inflammatory food, so eating it in moderation is key.
-  https://www.nature.com/ajg/journal/v107/n10/abs/ajg2012219a.html. Retrieved March 18th, 2016.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21224837. Retrieved March 18th, 2016.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8598704. Retrieved March 18th, 2016.
-  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9872614. Retrieved March 18th, 2016.