I would venture to guess that neither of my grandmothers had ever heard of gluten before they passed away, and I’m certain they never considered going gluten-free themselves. But these days, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down any aisle of the grocery store without being confronted with products labeled gluten-free (I’ve even bought a bag of plain cauliflower that was labeled gluten-free, which is crazy because cauliflower never contains gluten!), and you can’t open a health magazine or website without hearing about gluten. In fact, even back in 2013, about 1/3 of US adults wanted to reduce or eliminate gluten.
The #1 question I get asked is, “is gluten bad?” and the answer is no … I don’t even let my clients say the word “bad” in my office, because it perpetuates the connection between morality and food, which I don’t believe helps anyone. So then, they ask, “Do I need to go on a gluten-free diet?” The answer, as always, is: it depends. I believe that almost everyone will feel better on a diet that includes less gluten than the average American consumes, but I don’t think that everyone needs to give it up 100% for the rest of their lives. This post shares more about the research behind the claims about gluten, the benefits of going gluten-free, and how to find the right answer for your body.
Is it the refined carbs, or is it the gluten?
There are two reasons for my proclamation that “almost everyone” will feel better when they reduce the amount of gluten in their diet. The first is that we’re getting most of our gluten from foods that aren’t very healthy in the first place (the second is that gluten is inflammatory, which I’ll discuss in the next section).
The most common sources of gluten in the average American diet are pasta, bread, baked goods like cookies and pastries, and beer (see a more complete list of sources here). Even without gluten, these foods are made of refined carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar, leading to more cravings, more fat storage, and insulin insensitivity over the long-term. You’re simply not getting any nutritional “bang for your buck” by eating these foods regularly, with or without gluten.
Unfortunately, many people still believe the USDA’s outdated recommendations that we each need to eat 8 servings of grains (including bread and pasta) each day, which has been proven to be not only untrue, but also unhealthy. When people start reducing their intake of these common foods, they automatically feel better, their blood sugar becomes more stable, and they come closer to their optimal weight. This is one of the main reasons that substituting your “regular” cookies for gluten-free cookies isn’t the whole answer (which I’ll discuss below).
The inflammatory nature of gluten
The second reason that most people feel better when they go on a low-gluten (or gluten-free) diet is the actual gluten itself, which is highly inflammatory. In fact, gluten can cause inflammation for up to 6 months in those who are very sensitive!
When we have inflammation in the gut, the tight junctions between cells of your intestinal lining can loosen, leading to a condition called intestinal permeability (or “leaky gut”). Gluten triggers the release of a protein called zonulin that also contributes to leaky gut. Leaky gut allows too many large particles to pass through your gut lining into your bloodstream, starting another cascade of inflammation and leading to really uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, gas, cramping, nutrient malabsorption, heartburn, skin issues, fatigue, and more. Over time, leaky gut caused by gluten exposure can also make you more prone to autoimmune conditions (such as thyroid conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and more), and can even increase vulnerability to dementia and other neurological conditions. And gluten exposure increases intestinal permeability by up to 70%!
(By the way, if you’re experiencing bloating, you may be interested in my webinar called “Top 7 Reasons You May Be Bloated!“)
If you’re wondering how all of this relates to Celiac disease, know that only 1-3% of Americans have true celiac disease, which causes similar symptoms and also more severe long-term issues like nutrient malabsorption when gluten is not eliminated. People with Celiac disease truly need to eliminate gluten 100% of the time. But estimates for those with “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” range from 5-70% of Americans (clearly, science is still figuring this out!), so even in the absence of a Celiac diagnosis, it’s still worth it to figure out whether you feel better without gluten.
How to figure out whether gluten is impacting you
Because you’re reading this, I already know that you care about your health. And because of that, I think you owe it to yourself to try to eliminate gluten, at least for a short period of time. For most people, eliminating it fully for 2-4 weeks, then reintroducing, will bring up symptoms like bloating, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, migraines, arthritis, or a general “puffy” feeling. If you do feel those upon reintroduction, it’s a good sign that your body isn’t a big fan of gluten! If you need more help with an elimination diet, I help my clients through them all the time.
Personally, I used to eat gluten many times daily, like the average American, and didn’t realize it was making me feel bloated until I eliminated it for several weeks (since then, I’ve also gotten food intolerance testing and genetic testing to determine that gluten doesn’t agree with me, but the elimination diet was enough to know that without the test results!) Now, I choose not to eat gluten because it doesn’t make me feel my best (see this post for more on choosing vs. depriving!)
How to implement a gluten-free or low-gluten diet healthily
If you type “gluten-free recipes” into Pinterest, I can guarantee that least a handful of first few recipes you’ll see will be gluten-free sweets and desserts. Does that make them healthy, or even healthier? The short answer is no. When gluten is eliminated from a recipe, something else is substituted, and often those substitutions aren’t great for your body. Refined flour is a common ingredient. Because of the refinement process, the flour is absorbed by our bodies much more quickly. This, in turn, leads to blood sugar spikes, increasing your body’s insulin levels. Beyond that, refined flour increases inflammation, food cravings, can slow your metabolism, and leave you feeling hungry more quickly after finishing a meal.
Another thing to consider when substituting gluten-free foods: how do the manufacturers make it still taste good? The answer to this question is usually with sugar! Even though the front of the package boasts its gluten-free status, do take a moment and check out the nutrition label to see what else might be hiding. Familiarize yourself with how to spot the (dozens and dozens!) of sneaky names for sugar in this blog post.
If you’re craving that perfect sandwich and don’t want to deprive yourself, there are two alternatives I recommend.
- Sprouted grain bread: I’ll drop the science on you first. Bread made with sprouted grains kills the phytic acid present in the grains in their whole state. Phytic acid is basically a locker for the nutrients- your body can’t take the good stuff out of the locker to absorb and use without that phytic acid being unlocked (via the sprouting process). Another benefit of sprouted grain bread is that the sprouting process begins to break down the gluten, so while it’s not completely gluten-free, it is easier for your body to digest.
- Sourdough bread: You read that right! Like sprouted grain bread, sourdough is rich in fiber and is easier for your body to break down and take nutrients from. Sourdough contains more Lactobacillus than other breads, which is a good bacteria that increases lactic acid (which decreases phytic acid production) meaning that nutrient locker is easier for your body to open. Added bonus: because sourdough is made with live yeast, as opposed to dried yeast, it does not need a preservative cocktail to stay mold-free on the grocery store shelves.
The bottom line
I believe that almost everyone will feel better when they reduce the gluten in their diets, because of the inflammatory nature of gluten, and the fact that most gluten-containing foods (like cookies and bread) are less healthy, even in the absence of gluten. I recommend trying an elimination diet for 2 or more weeks (let me know if you need help!) to figure out if you feel better without much gluten, then experimenting with your intake to find the level that makes you feel best. If you feel overwhelmed, think of all the naturally gluten-free, delicious foods you can eat, even when you’re reducing gluten. All of the recipes and suggestions you’ll see here on The Lyons’ Share (as well as on Instagram) are gluten-free!
Now it’s your turn … Do you eat gluten? If so, have you ever experimented with cutting it out? If not, what made you choose to avoid it?