It feels like these days, gluten has become the butt of a never-ending joke. In the past, the only people who knew what gluten was were those with Celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the intestinal lining if gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barely, is consumed. . These days it’s become one of many healthy food fads – with individuals boasting that they’re gluten-free while they reach for a stack of GF cookies – because it’s thought that “they’re healthy”. As a result, gluten sensitivities seem to be taken less seriously than other common sensitivities like dairy or soy. And while not every individual reacts negatively to gluten, the fact is that it’s still one of the most common – and under-estimated – sensitivities Americans experience today.
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is a protein – more specifically, it’s a protein that is found in wheat, rye, and barley (Also, oats are usually cross-contaminated, unless they are certified gluten-free.) When flour is mixed with water, the gluten proteins in the flour form a glue-like consistency – and because of this, it’s often used in other processed foods as a binder. One potential consideration is the amount of gluten we’re ingesting in comparison to a few generations ago: we’re exposed to more gluten than ever, especially in our culture where processed foods are so prevalent. While it might be obvious that breads and baked goods are gluten containing, it sneaks into some you may not expect: soy sauce, Brewer’s yeast, some lunch meats, anything that’s malted or made with malt vinegar, flour-thickened gravy or soup, and even common salad dressings.
WHY SHOULD I CONSIDER TAKING IT OUT OF MY DIET?
You don’t have to have Celiac disease to suffer negative symptoms as a result of consuming gluten, but it may be harder to pinpoint. Those that have a sensitivity to gluten may experience more obvious GI symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, and abdominal pain – or their reaction could be made up of non-digestive symptoms like headaches or migraines, swollen or painful joints, brain fog, fatigue, acne and even depression.1
But going gluten-free can also have some other positive effects – most notably that it typically forces people to rely more on real, whole foods because they’re naturally gluten-free for the most part. And it’s well known that when you consume a balanced diet full of veggies, lean proteins and healthy fats (all naturally gluten-free), you feel better too.
I’M IN. NOW WHAT?
If you’re considering a gluten-eliminating diet, here are my top five tips on how to start.
Focus on real foods: Food that comes from the land or the sea (as a plant or an animal) should make up the largest foundation of our diet. Just by doing this, you’ll eliminate a huge source of gluten from your diet (processed foods). Your go-to list should include nuts, seeds and oils, quality protein, true whole grains like rice and quinoa, vegetables and some fruit.
Allow yourself to eat more: Typically when we eliminate a food from our diet – especially a larger like processed, gluten-filled ones – we often eat less because we’re not sure how else to fill our plates, which makes us feel hungrier. Make sure that as you eliminate, you’re also increasing the volume of other foods at your meals. A good rule of thumb is every plate should be half filled with vegetables and have at least a palm-full of healthy protein and a dab of healthy fat. If you’re active, include an unprocessed source of carbohydrate, like a root vegetable or rice. The amount of gluten-filled starches we can down in one sitting can be pretty high, so make sure you bulk up the veggies and other healthy foods to backfill.
Give yourself a timeline: With an elimination diet, you want to allow yourself enough time to really track your symptoms and understand how a certain food group may be impacting your health. Although this may turn out to be a life-long choice for you, I suggest starting with at least three weeks of living gluten-free. Three weeks is short enough that it feels “doable”, but long enough to feel the effects of the change and therefore make a more informed choice. If you decide you want to reintroduce gluten-containing foods, I suggest adding it back in for a day and watching out for change to how you feel for the following three days, as it can take a while for reactions to show up.
Get to know your “real whole grains”: There is a huge difference between foods made with whole grains (cereal, bread, etc.) and true whole grains – such as quinoa, brown and wild rice, and oats. If you are in need of a starch at meal time, gravitate towards these options, but watch your quantity if you have a body composition or weight loss goal. Also, if you’re strictly avoiding gluten, be sure any oats or oat-containing products are certified gluten-free and be careful of some newer grains on the market, such as kamut (sometimes kamut berries) and farro, which also contain gluten.
Gluten Free options as necessary: These days, you can find pretty much anything in a gluten-free version. Foods that are normally gluten-filled – like crackers, breads, cereals, and baked goods – can now be found in a gluten-free form at almost every grocery store. I’ve even seen them in gas stations! Be careful with these – just because something is lacking gluten doesn’t make it healthy. Don’t let the food industry fool you. But, if you aren’t quite ready to ditch the toast with your eggs or your pasta dinners, at the very least utilize these products with caution. They won’t improve your waist line (since they’re typically processed and filled with carbohydrates and refined sugar) but they are an option for the times that you need an occasional treat.
If you find that you eliminate gluten, but are still having some digestive troubles or other frustrating symptoms, know that it’s possible that something else might be going on or that there are several foods that may not agree with you. If that’s the case, gluten elimination may help you feel slightly better, but the other foods still in your plan could be wreaking havoc. I recommend connecting with a nutrition coach to see if a food sensitivity test (if available in your state) and broader modified elimination diet could be an option for you.
Written by Kat Larrea, Pn1 – Life Time 60day Program Manager with contributions by Samantha McKinney, RDN, LD.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.