There’s a good chance you’ve already experimented with a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein often blamed for a myriad of health issues, sometimes for good reason. Abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and sometimes even headaches, fatigue, rashes and joint pain have all been attributed to gluten.
The gluten protein is found in wheat, rye, barley, kamut, and spelt, and for some, it spells trouble. The key word is some…not everyone needs to go gluten-free. While I’m a firm believer that food plays a big role in wellness, an unnecessarily restrictive diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. So, let’s take a dive into gluten and look at when and where a gluten-free diet can be helpful.
One of the reasons that many struggle to digest gluten is because it’s often added to food and the addition of this extra, more processed gluten may be connected to the rise of gluten sensitivity. You might be surprised by just how much gluten is added to your food!
Check the label on a loaf of commercially made bread and you’ll usually find both wheat and added gluten. Gluten helps make your bread softer and fluffy. It’s added to a variety of food, like pasta and cereal, and can pop up in unexpected places like ice cream, medications and beauty products.
Is going gluten-free healthier?
Short answer—no. Over the last 15 years or so, a few health experts have warned about the “dangers” of eating gluten, and I believe that many people are unnecessarily shunning these foods.
While there are a lot of gluten-filled junk foods on the market (just check the cookie and snack-food aisle of a major grocery store), some gluten-containing foods, like sourdough bread, are wildly nutritious and can be a part of your diet. I only recommend going gluten-free when you know you have symptoms related to gluten.
Learn the Lingo
A general name for a group of proteins found in cereals such as wheat, rye, barley, kamut and spelt.
An auto-immune condition. Protein in gluten triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, which over time can cause nutritional deficiencies and unintentional weight loss. Undiagnosed celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, anemia, joint pain and many other symptoms.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Same digestive symptoms as celiac disease but without auto-immune symptoms and intestinal damage.
Those with NCGS may not be reacting to the protein in gluten but instead may struggle to digest the carbohydrates and fibres in the grains. Gluten sensitivity has a wide variety of symptoms and many possible causes.
Celiac Disease vs. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
The symptoms may feel similar, but there’s a huge difference between Celiac Disease and NCGS.
Celiac Disease is an auto-immune condition. The protein in gluten triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, which over time can cause nutritional deficiencies and unintentional weight loss. Undiagnosed celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, anemia, joint pain and many other symptoms.
Many people with NCGS will feel the same digestive symptoms but without auto-immune symptoms and intestinal damage. This means if someone with NCGS has a bit of gluten, the repercussions are much less. Eating gluten may trigger inflammation and other immune symptoms, but the immune system doesn’t damage the intestinal lining.
As well, those with NCGS may not be reacting to the protein in gluten but instead may struggle to digest the carbohydrates and fibres in the grains (gluten grains are high in FODMAPs, a sometimes hard-to-digest family of fibre). Or it’s possible they’re reacting to glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup) residue commonly found on conventionally grown grains. Gluten sensitivity has a wide variety of symptoms and many possible causes.
NCGS might also be circumstantial. It might pop up along with other digestive issues, like leaky gut, and might resolve on its own, especially after a gut-healing protocol. Alternatively, Celiac Disease is a life-long condition.
A gluten-free diet is necessary for both Celiac Disease and NCGS, but it’s important if you suspect you have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity to test out gluten occasionally to see if you’re still sensitive.
If you feel better without gluten and you’re wondering if you might be celiac, the first step is to ask your doctor for a blood test. A celiac blood test will show if you carry the IgA antibody associated with celiac disease. This is the first step; many will follow that up with an intestinal biopsy to confirm the classic celiac damage.
If your blood test is negative but you suspect you may have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, an elimination diet is a helpful next step. Remove all gluten-containing foods for a minimum of 10 days. After 10 days, spend a day doing a gluten challenge, gobbling up a few servings of gluten, and notice any symptoms that might pop up over the next 5 days. Some immune reactions can take up to 5 days before they show themselves, making this step very important.
If you feel a noticeable difference on a gluten-free diet and those symptoms return during your testing phase, you might benefit from a gluten-free diet. I usually recommend following a gluten-free diet for three months before doing another gluten challenge. Having an end date for your gluten-free diet can help reduce feelings of deprivation and can make the process much easier.
But, if you test positive for Celiac Disease, a gluten-free diet is important for life. This will allow your intestinal tract to heal and reduce other inflammatory symptoms that gluten triggers in your body.
Gluten-free Made Easy
Eating a gluten-free diet has become easier over the last 10 years. There are amazing gluten-free alternatives for most products, and many restaurants have a gluten-free menu.
Common sources of gluten to watch out for are wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, semolina, couscous, malt and brewer’s yeast.
- Nature’s Fare has made your gluten-free eating easier by marking all gluten-free products with a green price tag. Just scan the aisles and look for that green tag! They’ve done all the hard work for you.
- Substitute oat, buckwheat, quinoa or other gluten-free or alternative grain flours for wheat and other gluten flour in cooking and baking.
- Watch your condiments, as many are surprisingly high in gluten. The biggest culprit is soy sauce—wheat is often the first ingredient! Gluten-free tamari is a great alternative.
This article was published in The Good Life.