Gluten is a massive buzz-word these days, and there are LOTS of assumptions and contradictory, misleading information that pop up along with it. It’s time to set the record straight and navigate the myths vs. facts.
What is gluten?
We see gluten-free all of the time, but do you necessarily know what is really is?
Gluten is a complex mixture of hundreds of distinct proteins, mainly 2: gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin: gives bread the ability to rise during baking for example, and glutenin: is responsible for dough’s elasticity for example. Luckily not all grains contain gluten, but the most common ones are wheat, barley, farro, and rye. Not only is it commonly added to things like bread/baked goods, but also to things like soups and sauces as a thickening agent, and other products for texture/consistency as well.
What’s the difference between Celiac disease & gluten sensitivity?
Celiac disease is just that – a disease. It’s an autoimmune disease (in many cases it’s hereditary, but not all) that affects about 1 in 133 people.
When those with celiac disease eat gluten, it primarily wreaks havoc on their digestive tract by causing something called leaky gut. Basically the tight junctions between the cells of the wall of the digestive tract get permeated. Little holes are formed in our small intestine that let things into the bloodstream that do not belong there, prompting the body to attack it and increasing our inflammation.
It also starts to literally break down and distroy villi in our intestine that reduces our ability to absorb nutrients and negatively impacts the immune system.
Unlike an allergy or an autoimmune disease, a gluten sensitivity doesn’t involve the immune system seeing certain food or ingredient and launching an internal attack on it. Instead, it describes when the body cannot properly process and assimilate certain food or ingredient by the digestive system triggering some type of symptom or symptoms.
The body is trying to say “Hey you ate something I don’t like!” This affects about 1 in 7 people and can vary in severity.
Reactions appear to when someone has an allergy/Celiac disease usually really quickly or within a couple hours, but reactions can appear to sensitivities up to 72 hours later. This makes them even harder to identify. Some common symptoms include: igestive issues, like bloating, gas, etc. trouble losing weight and keeping it off, headaches or migraines, acne, skin rash including redish bumps on the backs of arms, fatigue/brain fog, mood issues like anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc., trouble digesting dairy, and more – massive laundry list!
Why would gluten be something you would want to avoid?
I’m a huge advocate for the intuitive style of eating and not necessarily cutting anything out of your diet completely, but I do recognize there are some people that should absolutely be avoiding gluten, like those with Celiac disease because when they eat foods with gluten it’s creating damage to their GI tract.
Also those with sensitivities. If you find out you have a sensitivity to gluten, it can make a massive positive impact on your health if you avoid it.
Keep in mind though that our bodies do not have the proper enzymes to break down the complex proteins that make up gluten. The immune system spots gluten as an invader and goes into battle mode to get rid of it. But here’s the key: in those people that do not have Celiac or a sensitivity, the immune system is able to “clean up” the gluten invasion, and then it’s back to business as usual. It passes through the system and doesn’t cause damage.
That said, with many people at some point there’s a trigger event usually tied to weakening the immune system that causes the body not to tolerate it anymore, and it’s not always obvious to pin point when it happens.
How would someone know if gluten is something they need to avoid?
There are a few ways! You can get bloodwork testing done to see if you carry the common genetic markers for Celiac disease. I’d say better safe than sorry for the Celiac testing especially, because it’s too hard to pinpoint on our own if we have the disease which actively damages the GI tract, and can cause really bad damage over time.
You can also get bloodwork testing done to identify if you have a sensitivity to gluten, which is done measuring any changes in the size of white blood cells and white blood cell counts in response to gluten. That was actually what I did initially that brought me down this healthier, happier path initially!
Another option is doing an elimination diet where you don’t eat any gluten at all for a few weeks, then slowly try to eat it again and tune in super close to how you feel. The hard part about that is not everyone has an outward manifesting reaction so this can be hard to do successfully.
Or you can just be preventative, knowing there’s a good chance your body won’t process it well, and let it use its energy in other ways.
Why is it so common nowadays for people to have trouble digesting gluten?
For 10,000 years, we cultivated wheat, stored it, milled it and consumed it. The system worked, and it nourished civilization. Then, in the industrial era, we changed things. Modern day gluten has been chemically treated and genetically modified to be resistant to pests and drought, delivery better results when used in baking, and easier to harvest, dramatically increasing yield per acre. We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals.
It’s deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated. Our bodies haven’t evolved to the point where they recognize what it is and can digest/assimilate it. Check out this Ted Talk for more info!
Will cutting out gluten will help with weight loss?
It can, weight loss resistance is a possible symptom of gluten sensitivities. Also there are kind of 2 ways you can go when cutting gluten: a healthier way and a not so healthy way. Other than the obvious gluten-containing grains and depending on the degree of sensitivity for people maybe gluten-grain eating animals, all foods in their most natural state are naturally gluten free. So if you choose to cut gluten and eat real, whole foods like veggies, meats, beans, non-gluten containing grains, nuts, seeds, healthy oils instead of the processed breads, cereals, pastas and what not, that can naturally help regulate weight too.
So you want to see if avoiding gluten helps you feel better, where do you start?
Start by being a food label detective. Look at the list of ingredients in EVERYTHING you eat/drink to see if it includes gluten/wheat, and ask whenever you eat out.
There are SO many places that gluten hides in the food we eat every day and products we use too, like sauces, candies, cous cous, beer, lunch meat, hot dogs, imitation fish, chips, salad dressing, seasoned rice and pasta mixes, beef jerky, frozen veggie burgers, fried foods, cereal, soy sauce, and non-food places like medicine, hair products, and skincare products.
Luckily there are lots of swaps for those things and versions that have been formulated to be free from gluten! Like for grains* you can have white and brown rice, millet, gluten free oats, sorghum, buckwheat, aramanth, teff, corn, quinoa, and I love brown rice pasta or bean-based pastas. *just always read labels to make sure nothing else is added, natural state
If a product is labeled gluten free, does that mean it’s healthier?
It really depends on how you’re defining healthier. Usually it either might be healthier, or it might be the same. Yes processed foods like crackers and cookies that are gluten free do contain other additives and emulsifiers to help with consistency and texture to get close to the gluten containing original, but chances are good the gluten-containing product also have similar things added – plus the difficult to break down gluten proteins too.
Worried you can’t eat the foods you love most because they contain gluten?
I’ve been gluten free for close to 8 years now, along with mostly dairy free and a handful of other sensitivities, and I have to say gluten is by far the easiest to avoid because there are SO many gluten free alternatives these days. It’s a great opportunity to get creative and find ways to enjoy your favorite gluten-containing foods with maybe even healthier ingredients. Yes traveling and eating out can be a bit sad when you see your options and compare them to what else is out there, but it comes down to your values and priorities. If you value your health, wellbeing, and really want to look and feel your best, it helps you look at those situations differently so they aren’t as challenging.
What are some staples that are helpful to have in the kitchen?
I have a whole pantry makeover checklist and video you should definitely check out!
The best thing to do is take inventory of all things you have in your fridge and pantry and freezer that contain gluten, and look for swaps proactively so you don’t feel deprived. When you feel deprived you’re more likely to struggle with it a lot and overdo it if you do eat it. Like coconut aminos to swap out for soy sauce is huge in my opinion because I cook with it a ton.
Finding a gluten free bread I loved was key, I order online from a company in Florida called DeLand, their All Natural bread has just 5 ingredients: millet, brown rice, water, baking powder, and salt, and it’s DELISH! Swaps for grains like those I mentioned earlier, but for pasta a good brown rice or even bean based pasta to mix things up. I love Jovial brand. Look at your cereals and granola bars closely to see if they have gluten, your soups and sauces, be a mega detective then explore alternatives.
What about tips for eating out and avoiding gluten?
Look for restaurants that advertise farm to table or scratch kitchen because you’ll likely have more options because the ingredients they use are closest to their natural state – so more likely to be naturally gluten free. Mexican food tends to be on the safer list because they do a lot with corn based items. For sushi avoid tempura and be sure to bring your own gluten free soy sauce or coconut aminos. Also beware of imitation crab. For Italian lots of places these days have the option for using a rice based pasta which is great. On many menus nowadays they have little symbols for glute free, but always tell your server and ask questions, never assume!
What are some of your favorite gluten-free hacks that make eating gluten-free easier?
The biggest thing for me was really identifying what I loved with gluten and finding healthified swaps to not deprive or restrict myself. I also always make sure I have snacks on-hand so I don’t have to worry about finding something gluten free if I’m out and about and get hungry. When I travel I always bring zip locs with GF oats, raisins, and seeds mixed in so I always at least have breakfast. I also travel with packets of coconut aminos in case we end up at a sushi restaurant! I guess to sum that up planning ahead is key! Think about what might go wrong, and plan for it.
If you go into it with the goal of health and feeling better and wanting to make it work, it’ll be easier on you. If you go into it thinking UGH this sucks I don’t want to do it it probably won’t matter anyway I can’t eat anything I want, you’re going to struggle!