Is gluten really a villain? Given all the gluten-free (GF) options on the market these days one would think that gluten is bad for your health and that gluten allergies are quite common. Truth is, gluten allergies are actually somewhat rare. In fact, it’s estimated that only 6-7% of the U.S. population has a gluten intolerance and only 1% has a true gluten allergy. With such a small number of the population affected, how did gluten become such a hot topic? Regardless of medical reasons to choose a GF lifestyle, this diet trend has been growing in popularity on the belief that GF is healthier and can even help with weight loss. So is gluten really bad for your health? How do you know if you should be going gluten-free? I’m here to break down the truth about gluten and how food companies are using this fad to their advantage to boost sales, not because they are actually concerned about your health.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is found naturally in wheat plants and some commonly used grains like barley and rye. Acting as a binding agent, gluten is extracted from its natural state and added to processed foods to hold it all together, like glue for ingredients. Gluten is commonly found in processed carbohydrates like bread, pasta, pastries, and cereal, which are unhealthy regardless of their gluten status. Gluten has been a part of our diet since wheat has been a food source, so why all of a sudden is it becoming a household topic?
But since people are talking about it, the food industry used this popularity to increase sales by shining the spotlight away from processed foods with added sugars and onto gluten. Their plan worked because the GF diet has soared in popularity. Food industries offering GF products have grown 136% from 2013 to 2015 and were valued at $4.3 billion in 2019, yet the incidence of gluten-related diseases hasn’t increased nearly as much, which means the majority of increased sales are from people who do not suffer from any gluten problems at all.
Although GF diets are considered to be relatively safe, avoiding gluten eliminates an entirely healthy food group of whole grains, which help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and even obesity. There’s also little evidence that GF diets offer any health benefits to people who can tolerate gluten just fine. However, the evidence does show that adhering to a GF diet limits dietary options and can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients. Which leads to the question: Should we avoid gluten or are we just buying into the hype?
Let’s start with your gut
We are all blessed with our own unique GI tract and immune system, so there may be certain things that don’t agree with your gut. Gluten is notorious for being difficult to digest, but so is wheat, which can cause similar symptoms in the gut. Gluten and wheat tend to travel together, which makes it difficult to truly identify the problem, and actually leaves us guessing whether it’s the wheat, gluten, or both causing our gut issues.
Your gut is preprogrammed by your one-of-a-kind genetic DNA and influenced daily by environmental factors that we are exposed to. Microorganisms living in your gut make up a microbiome that affects how you digest and absorb food. Everything we consume has the potential to alter our GI tract, but a healthy gut can keep everything in balance. When we eat too many irritating foods it causes problems in the gut, creating inflammation and allowing toxins to seep into our bloodstream, known as leaky gut syndrome. The bigger problem may not be solely the foods themselves but more so the repetitive exposure to them without allowing the gut to heal. Gluten may not bother you now, but eating a diet high in wheat and gluten daily for years may eventually cause GI problems if you’re sensitive to these agents.
Food allergies have been rapidly on the rise and may be influenced by overexposure to not only a variety of processed foods but also the chemicals used to make them. The human body is not built to break down food like garbage disposals. Our bodies are equipped to digest whole natural foods that are recognizable, but when we alter food with chemicals, we are also altering our gut microbiome. When we consume mostly processed fake foods and/or foods that don’t agree with our gut, the digestive system has added stress and must work overtime until eventually, it can’t keep up, and disease sets in.
Gluten Allergy or Intolerance
Celiac Disease is a true immune response from an allergy to gluten. Celiac disease is considered an auto-immune disease as the body’s own immune system literally attacks the gluten damaging the lining of the GI tract. Generally, symptoms are more intense compared to gluten intolerance or sensitivity but can range from mild to severe. Symptoms may start out as mild but usually get progressively worse with each subsequent exposure.
Common symptoms of celiac disease are:
- Autoimmune response with gluten exposure: body starts attacking gluten in the body
- Abdominal pain, bloating, bowel changes, fatigue, headache…
- As Celiac Disease progresses: Skin rash, joint pain, malabsorption causing anemia and osteoporosis
With Celiac, there’s a genetic disposition that is present at birth which is triggered later in life by various environmental and physiological factors such as stress after pregnancy or a viral infection. Celiac disease is diagnosed with a gluten challenge test, specific blood tests to detect antibodies to gluten, as well as possible biopsies from the GI tract. Once Celiac disease is diagnosed it’s generally for life and the only “cure” is to avoid gluten with a strict GF lifestyle that includes foods, personal care products, and even separate appliances. Celiac disease is so sensitive that even a crumb from using a community toaster can trigger a full-blown immune reaction. With each flare-up, the GI lining becomes damaged and permeable, disrupting digestion and absorption. Often vitamin supplementation is needed for any deficiencies such as iron, vitamin D, zinc, folic acid, and calcium. Therefore it’s crucial to avoid all gluten traces with Celiac disease.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is considered a gluten intolerance. When gluten is consumed, you may experience symptoms like:
- Abdominal discomfort: pain, gas, bloating
- Changes in bowel habits: diarrhea/constipation
- As it progresses: headaches, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety/depression, joint pain
NCGS is not a true allergy and symptoms are generally milder compared to Celiac Disease. Although gluten intolerance affects women more, it can occur in anyone at any age. Blood tests may reveal evidence of an immune response to an unknown agent, but it’s not specific to gluten like celiac detection is. Assessment and an elimination diet can be more helpful in diagnosing. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for either disorder, and treatment for both conditions is to adhere to a GF lifestyle.
Before we throw gluten out of our diets, let’s look at the benefits. Whole grains protect us from major diseases like obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers. Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, and nutrients like iron, magnesium, folate, and B vitamins. Processing foods can remove gluten, but also removes all the disease-fighting benefits creating a chemical cocktail that we then put into our GI tract.
Conflicting arguments for gluten cause confusion, but let’s make it clear that GF does not necessarily make food healthier. GF foods tend to be higher in sugar, fat, and overall calories while being low in actual nutritional value. Evidence shows that adhering to a GF diet when not affected by any gluten disorders does not provide any additional health benefits. Eating GF is generally considered safe, but unnecessary unless you suffer from gluten intolerance or Celiac disease. However, altering your diet by replacing processed high-carb foods with natural whole foods would ultimately provide more health benefits regardless of gluten status.
Gluten is one of the main binding agents used in the majority of processed foods and personal care products on the market. From ketchup and processed meats to makeup and medications, gluten finds a way into our system so it can be quite a challenge to determine what foods irritate your gut. One of the best ways is to try an elimination diet and food journal.
Create a GF meal plan and remove all gluten from your fridge and pantry. Write down all your meals and symptoms each day and see if you have any improvement after removing gluten from your diet. If you aren’t sure if it’s gluten or wheat that’s causing the problem, eliminate both and then slowly introduce one back into your diet at a time and watch for symptoms. This should help narrow down what could be bothering your gut. In the first 2-3 weeks target gluten and completely eliminate it from your diet. You will have to sharpen your detective skills to look for gluten under various names, as it’s hidden in nearly everything from soy sauce to soup and even beer. Often it’s not clearly labeled on the ingredient list either, making it very difficult to detect.
Focus on Restoring Gut Health
Our GI tract is where most of our immune system resides and it frequently comes into contact with foreign pathogens. It can be very sensitive in some people while others can eat just about anything they want (we all know that person that we’re secretly jealous of). Your gut is unique to you so what your friends eat may not necessarily be the best for you. Nonetheless, everyone’s gut is healthier by removing processed foods so if you’re eliminating gluten replace it with whole food options rather than GF pretzels.
Probiotics & Prebiotics can help rebuild your gut microbiome. Probiotics are live strands of healthy gut bacteria to keep the bad bacteria from overgrowing. Good gut bacteria is critical to our digestive health and certain agents can destroy our good bacteria such as frequent antibiotic use. Antibiotics kill all bacteria, the good and the bad, leaving your gut susceptible to other infections. Probiotics work great to support gut health and they work even better when paired with prebiotics.
Prebiotics are special plant fibers that the bacteria feed on. Having strong healthy bacteria keeps toxins contained in the gut and helps with digestion and absorption. Yogurt has live probiotics, but many yogurts also have lots of sugars that can disrupt the GI tract so it’s best to get plain yogurt and add natural sweetness from fruit and honey.
Fiber is important for gut regularity and maintaining an intact microbiome. Most of us do not get enough fiber daily which can also contribute to GI problems. Daily fiber recommendations for women are 21-25 grams and for 30-38 grams for men. Increase your fiber intake slowly so your gut can get used to it, too much fiber at once can lead to bowel discomfort.
Multivitamins can help with any malabsorption that can occur with a damaged gut from Celiac disease. While the gut is busy fighting off intruders, inflammation sets in and it becomes difficult to digest and absorb food properly. Over time vitamin deficiencies can occur, such as calcium causing osteoporosis and iron leading to anemia. Malabsorption is common with Celiac disease but you can also be deficient in certain vitamins and minerals from other gut disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
Avoid foods that are irritating to your gut and allow it time to heal. Talk to your primary care provider about getting checked if you’re experiencing unpleasant or persistent symptoms. If you’re suffering from multiple foods affecting your gut there are also food allergy panels and sensitivity tests that can be done as well.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.