I talk all the time on the blog and with my clients about the concept of going gluten-free. It usually is met with a little bit of resistance, as many people continue to believe that going gluten-free is another dietary fad or that buying gluten-free junk food somehow gives you a free pass. Unfortunately, neither option is ideal.
What is ideal is focusing on real, whole foods that don’t contain gluten (meat, eggs, seafood, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit) so that you can allow your body to heal from the inflammation that gluten can cause in the body. But before we dive too deep into the negative aspects of gluten, let’s take a step back and actually discuss what gluten is.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a mixture of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) found in grains that acts like a “glue” that holds foods together. It is found in most grains including wheat, barley, rye, spelt, farro, etc. Simple enough, right? Seems harmless if its main function is to just hold foods together.
The Negative Side of Gluten
Gluten, and most grains, contain lectins, which are a class of proteins found in most plants. Lectins are not broken down during the digestive process in humans because our digestive enzymes don’t recognize their structure, lectins can directly inhibit certain digestive enzymes, and foods that contain lectins can also interfere with digestive enzymes as well. Basically, lectins interfere with our ability to digest the foods that contain them properly.
But it’s more than not being able to digest foods. Gluten (and the lectins within) are very good at causing harm to our gut. Gluten easily can pass through our delicate gut barrier that protects our most important organs (our digestive system) and our immune system, while also causing inflammation as well.
What happens when our gut barrier is damaged? We develop a leaky gut which can create a host of issues including digestive distress, nutrient deficiencies, weight gain, hormonal dysfunction, food allergies or sensitivities, and can lead to the development of autoimmune diseases as well. Gluten is known to create a leaky gut due to its ability to break apart the cells that make up our gut barrier.
In addition, gluten creates a state of chronic inflammation in the body when it interferes with the gut lining and works its way into a space it shouldn’t be. Chronic inflammation is at the root of modern disease in my opinion including Type II Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cardiovascular disease.
Yes, I said cardiovascular disease. The inflammation that gluten creates in the body can directly impact our heart health in addition to our gut health, proving it is truly harmful to the entire body, not just one aspect. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease in your family, I HIGHLY recommend cutting gluten out of your diet.
As mentioned above, gluten inhibits the production of digestive enzymes, making it nearly impossible for our bodies to break down the foods that we are eating in order to effectively assimilate the nutrients found in those foods. Whole grains are often praised for their abundant nutrients, but here’s the catch – WE CAN’T ABSORB THEM ANYWAY!! You are doing your body a disservice by eating a diet primarily loaded in grains, especially if they are in processed form (cereal, crackers, bread, etc).
Of course, no discussion of gluten would be complete without discussing its correlation with obesity, a growing health concern in society. Why would this be the case? It’s simple, and it comes back to what we’ve already discussed: gut health. When our gut becomes leaky and we aren’t absorbing nutrients to the highest degree, we continue to have the desire to eat more and more because our body isn’t getting the nutrition it truly needs to thrive. Plus, gluten is found in all sorts of highly processed grain based products, which are also loaded with sugar and toxic vegetable oils, both of which can be attributed to weight gain as well.
Physical Symptoms of Eating Gluten
When we eat gluten regularly, you may start to notice a host of symptoms, including headaches, weight gain, inflammation and joint pain, hormonal issues and infertility, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, digestive distress (bloating, gas, heartburn, etc), nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar dysregulation, and so much more.
Who Should Avoid Gluten?
The real question is: who shouldn’t avoid gluten?
In all seriousness, anyone and everyone should avoid gluten at least for a few weeks to assess how you react to it. Keep it out for a few weeks, reintroduce it back in, and see what symptoms go away and come back with this process.
Those who have a family history of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, autoimmune conditions, and any other chronic diseases should take a good, hard look at gluten intake as well.
Those with celiac disease obviously also need to religiously avoid gluten, but even if you don’t have celiac disease, you might still have a gluten sensitivity, so it’s still worth the experiment.
Where Does Gluten Hide?
Gluten hides in everything, especially processed foods. When looking at any food, look for any of the following words or the foods themselves that would indicate the presence of gluten: barley, barley malt, beer, bleached/unbleached flour, bran, bread flour, bulgur, condiments, couscous, croutons, food starch, French fries, gravy, hydrolyzed gluten, ice cream, imitation fish, malt vinegar, panko, sauces, self-basting poultry, soy sauce, stuffing, syrups, wheat germ, and wheat starch.
Moreover, buying whole grain or whole wheat products will NOT protect you from gluten. Just because a product is made with whole grains or whole wheat doesn't mean it's free gluten. Quite the opposite actually. This means that even if you are buying whole grain bread, you are still eating gluten and causing harm to your digestive system, even though whole grain/wheat products are proclaimed as superfoods in conventional nutritional advice.
Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gets you started. Basically, any food that contains wheat flour or grains will most likely have gluten.
How To Go Gluten Free
If this all seems overwhelming, don’t worry! Going gluten free is much easier than even a couple of years ago with all the new labeling and products on the market.
Basically, when going gluten free, I find it best to focus on what you CAN eat, not what you can’t eat. Load up your plate with tons of animal protein and plenty of colorful vegetables. Add in some satiating healthy fat like avocado or butter. You can still also include gluten free grains and legumes in limited amounts as well such as rice, quinoa, oats, beans, and lentils.
Start with just two weeks. You can do ANYTHING for two weeks. Take note of what symptoms start to alleviate. Take note of how you feel. Trust me, you might be pleasantly surprised at how good you can feel!