Gluten Free Diets: Good or Bad?

Gluten allergies have come to the forefront of many nutritional discussions and debates recently as more and more people are opting to live gluten-free. There are health benefits to avoiding or minimizing your gluten intake, especially if you are allergic to it.

How do you know if you are allergic to gluten? And if you aren’t, is eating gluten the end of the world? Does it compromise your fitness/lifestyle goals? What are some replacement foods you can add to your diet instead of gluten?

First, some background reading. Mark’s Daily Apple tells us why grains are unhealthy in this comprehensive post.

Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten.

If only 1% of the population are celiacs, why are so many people avoiding gluten? Just because your body can tolerate gluten doesn’t mean you should be eating it.

And it gets worse: just because you’re not celiac doesn’t mean you aren’t susceptible to the ravages of gluten. As Stephan highlights, one study showed that 29% of asymptomatic (read: not celiac) people nonetheless tested positive for anti-gliadin IgA in their stool. Anti-gliadin IgA is an antibody produced by the gut, and it remains there until it’s dispatched to ward off gliadin – a primary component of gluten. Basically, the only reason anti-gliadin IgA ends up in your stool is because your body sensed an impending threat – gluten. If gluten poses no threat, the anti-gliadin IgA stays in your gut.

So the news isn’t good for gluten eaters who don’t have an allergy.

Although there isn’t a unified way to test for gluten sensitivity, it isn’t hard for one to see if they are unable to tolerate it. Simply drop all foods containing gluten for a week or two, and take note of any differences (more energy, less stomach aches, that sort of thing).

You’ll notice that the recent study didn’t determine gluten sensitivity solely by running patients’ labs and looking for a certain figure; they had to painstakingly and laboriously eliminate confounding variables (like celiac) through extensive lab testing, and then run a double blind wheat challenge to see if symptoms still arose. That grand, single overarching lab test doesn’t exist, not yet anyway.

One study found that close to 1/3 of all Americans suffer from some sort of gluten sensitivity.

Another study found that around 12% of healthy people’s blood samples tested positive for antibodies to IgG. Fecal tests, however, indicate that around 29% of healthy people test positive. If the fecal antibody tests are accurate and reflective of gluten sensitivity, that’s nearly a third of Americans!

If you try a week off gluten and feel no difference, perhaps you can tolerate it. But if you notice an increased amount of energy or fewer fluctuations in your energy level throughout the day (energy crashes after big meals, most notably), perhaps it is time to consider a diet that has zero or minimal gluten.

And if you are asking why more and more people are complaining of gluten allergies compared to in the past, it is because gluten sensitivity has increased dramatically over the past half-century.

Two fascinating studies that tested  for gluten sensitivity in military men using blood samples that had been taken 50 years before found that rates of gluten intolerance have increased 4-fold over the last 50 years. The men from that study who lived with undiagnosed gluten sensitivity had nearly a 5 times greater risk of dying from all causes during the 50-year study period.

You can develop gluten intolerance at any age. For example, a review in the Annals of Medicine found that during a 15-year period from 1974-1989, celiac disease rates doubled in one U.S. cohort, and this jump was due to an increasing number of subjects that lost the immunological tolerance to gluten in their adulthood.

More Reasons to Go Gluten Free

First, here is some background information on the gluten-free diet from the Mayo Clinic.

Some interesting and eye-opening studies have connected gluten to some pretty bad things.

  • Gluten has been linked to autism. EVERY single client who came in for a consult to help their autistic child, have seen that the removal of gluten that the most influential factor to heal their child. They can also how reintroducing by accident, such as birthday cake consumption at a friend’s place immediately flares up all behavioral changes associated with autism.
  • Gluten can induce depression. The inflammatory responses associated with gluten consumption can induce depressive symptoms. No amount of meditation or talk therapy will get you of depression if you are gluten sensitive. Fixing your biology is crucial before undergoing any psychotherapy.
  • Gluten negatively affects body composition. When one stops eating gluten, BioSignature practitioners see immediate drops in subscapular, mid-axillary, umbilical, and supra-illiac sites. That is because gluten raises insulin dramatically and since it is also a strong allergen raises cortisol. The combination of raising both hormones leads to central obesity.
While a lot of these studies have yet to be proven scientifically, I would say that has just as much to do with a lack of focus on the topic until recent years. And it isn’t always possible to quantify “feeling better,” but try telling that to someone who feels better when gluten is removed?
A lot of the inconsistencies in academic studies can be attributed to the lack of a true standardized way to measure gluten sensitivty outside of celiacs. If you cut out gluten and feel/look a lot better, how can you monitor that? Body fat percentage change, potentially? How can you track your sleep patterns, energy, or general well-being? I think that is where the focus is going to go in the near future – finding a way to quanitfy the gluten-free or low-gluten craze.

Going Gluten Free

There is nothing to gain from gluten in terms of nutrients that you cannot get from other food sources. If you are an athlete or someone who needs a lot of caloric fuel, and you have no sensitivity to gluten, you are probably fine eating foods like organic oats, spelt, and kamut. Oats are technically gluten-free, but often times they are refined in facilities that also produce wheat, and trace amounts of gluten are present in the final oat product. These foods are calorically dense, and although they contain some gluten, they are a lot healthier than other alternatives (wheat, rye, barley, and so on).

Following a gluten-free diet isn’t easy for most people at first, and it isn’t always easy, to stick to, either. As we tend to find out, things that are hard are usually the best for us in the long run. More restaurants and grocery stores are offering alternative “gluten-free” menus and food options, but there is still a long way to go. Although these aren’t my thoughts on being gluten free (I do have some gluten in my diet), I share many of the reasons for minimizing my gluten intake.

Do I like being gluten free? Well I like feeling better – gluten makes me tired, cranky, irritable and depressed – although my gut doesn’t react at all. But no, I don’t like it all of the time. I have been very hungry in an airport when I’ve forgotten to pack snacks for myself, I’ve been sad perusing a menu seeing how limited my options are and I’ve never tasted the delicious looking chocolate croissants at my favorite Park Slope coffee shop.

Gluten Containing Grains:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Spelt
  • Kalmut
  • Rye
  • Trticale
  • Most cereals
  • Oats
  • Couscous
  • Bulgar wheat

Gluten also plays a role in many other products, including:

  • Alcohol made from grains: beer, whisky, vodka (unless purely potato), Scotch, most liquors and cheaper wines.
  • Artificial coloring additives
  • Chewing Gum
  • Battered Foods (i.e. fish sticks, fried appetizers, occasionally sweet potato or regular fries) and foods fried in same oil as battered foods (French fries).
  • Biscotti, pastries and any baked good made from flour, not specified as gluten free
  • Bran
  • Many juices and fruit drinks
  • Sauces in general, horseradish sauce and most premade salad dressings (unless gluten free)
  • Canned meat containing preservatives, canned vegetables (unless in water only)
  • Items containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (often made with wheat)
  • Caramel (other than from US and Canada)
  • Imitation seafood (usually made with a starch, common in sushi)
  • Instant hot drinks (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, etc)
  • Ketchup and most condiments (anything made with modified food starch has corn and/or wheat)
  • Rice syrup (may contain barley malt)
  • Soups (most commercially made canned or frozen soup)
  • Spices including white pepper, curry powder, bouillon cubes or powder
  • Soy sauce (except Tamari wheat free soy sauce) and most Chinese sauces
  • Malt
  • Veined cheeses (may be made from molds that may be of bread origin)
  • Mustards (unless specifically gluten free, read label for modified food starch)
  • Margarines
  • Sausages
  • Flavor enhancers including MSG (monosodium glutamate), glutamic acid, monopotassium glutamate, ammonium glutamate

Quinoa is a great substitute for gluten-containing food products. It is gluten free, and is actually a seed and not a grain. Some quinoa products contain gluten (just because something contains quinoa doesn’t necessarily make it gluten free), so make sure you do your homework before buying if you are a celiac. Other gluten-free grains include rice (brown or wild rice, preferably), millet, and buckwheat.

For myself, I eliminated most gluten from my diet for one simple reason – I feel better when I don’t eat it. I don’t have that “lethargic” feeling after a big pasta meal, I have more energy in the morning, and my energy level is more consistent throughout the day. For me, cutting down on my gluten intake wasn’t hard – I’m not a big beer drinker, and I didn’t eat a ton of pasta or bread before cutting it out. That isn’t to say I avoid it at all times – I will have a sandwich from time to time, or the odd beer or two.

There are a number of gluten-free alternatives out there today. Not all of them are healthy. For example, just by removing or replacing gluten, it doesn’t mean that the pizza you are eating is healthy. Gluten-free products can have just as many unhealthy ingredients as other processed goods or fast food items – it is sometimes a ploy used to trick consumers. Make sure you get good at reading labels.

Some quick tips if you want to decrease your gluten intake:

1) Avoid processed foods. This one is obvious. Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and nuts.

2) Find replacements for the foods you used to like. Almond flour or coconut flour is a great replacement for regular flour. There are a ton of pasta alternatives out there nowadays, too. You may have to spend a bit more money, but what price do you put on feeling good? 

3) Get creative with cooking. Unless you can afford a private chef, any improvement in diet is going to come with an increased focus/expenditure on groceries and cooking. But it is time to start looking at food as an investment instead of an expense. If you “save” money on your groceries by purchasing granola bars and other processed goods, what are you really saving if it leads to sickness or a decrease in your overall health?

4) Shop more frequently, but purchase less. This ensures you buy fresh/non-processed products. Instead of shopping once-a-week, go twice, but buy less. If you are too busy, find the time to do it. Not having enough time is often an excuse. Pop in to the grocery store before work or on your lunch break if you won’t have time in the evening, for example. The quicker you make buying and eating the right foods a priority, the better you will feel, regardless of if you are an athlete or a couch potato.

In Conclusion…

Living gluten-free isn’t just some trend fancy grocery stores created to get you to buy weird and expensive products. And it isn’t just for celiacs, either. There is a decent chance that you may have some sort of intolerance to gluten. And even if you don’t, there are many reasons to give a gluten-free diet a try. Now if you love pasta/beer too much to even think of switching, that is fine. It isn’t forced on you, but do a gluten-free trial run for a week or two and take note of any differences. I guarantee you will feel better (as long as you are replacing the calories, you don’t want to find yourself under-eating);

And as with all diets, if you want to stick with it over the long term, don’t make extreme changes right away. Instead of cutting all gluten out immediately, phase it out bit by bit if that is more manageable. And if you don’t notice much of a difference with less or no gluten in terms of how you feel, it is up to you how much gluten you have in your diet. Even if you are not sensitive to it, decreasing your gluten intake can lead to fat loss, better gains in the gym, and a number of other health benefits.

One popular diet that preaches no gluten is the Paleo Diet, which has aligned itself with CrossFit. The Paleo Diet is very effective for fat loss and overall health, but it may be seen as restrictive by some (and athletes may have trouble getting enough calories on it). Do as much reading or research as you can before starting a diet, and find what works best for you. Perhaps you are able to handle gluten in the form of spelt, kamut, or brown rice, and the additional calories are essential to your performance.

Another point to make – we see in the news and media stories with athletes eating pasta before games, or consuming a massive amount of food (often containing gluten) before or after training/performing. There is a reason for this – they simply need calories for fuel. Could they benefit from switching to a gluten-free pasta product? Perhaps, but don’t try to eat like an athlete unless you train like one. They have much different caloric demands than the average person.