Gluten-free diets have been all the rage in the past few years, with the trend garnering more attention in the media over the last decade. Many people have been switching to gluten-free diets in order to lose weight, boost energy, and/or generally feel healthier.
But do you really need to be gluten-free to improve your health?
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. You’ll find it in foods such as bread, pasta, cakes, cereals and some sauces. It is highly elastic, which makes gluten-based grains suitable for baking to increase strength, rise, and texture.
WHY DOES IT CAUSE ISSUES?
People with Celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten in any amounts as it triggers an immune response that causes inflammation and damage in the small intestines. This can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, leading to a host of other problems and symptoms like weight loss, diarrhea, osteoporosis and infertility. Celiac disease is diagnosed through an intestinal biopsy or blood tests for specific antibodies. Currently, the only cure is to avoid gluten completely.
A large population of people without Celiac disease may also experience similar symptoms – like bloating, cramping, headaches, fatigue and joint pain – without any evidence of an allergy or immune response when blood work is done. This has been called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), which science still has a lot to learn about.
Gluten proteins are resistant to being broken down by the protease enzymes in our digestive tract. Incomplete digestion allows for large particles of amino acids to pass through the lining of our intestines and into our bloodstream, causing an immune response.
WHO SHOULD AVOID GLUTEN?
- People with Celiac disease and wheat allergies
- People who may have NCGS
- People with autoimmune disorder such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis – some studies have shown that the ingestion of gluten can worsen symptoms due to a mechanism called molecular mimicry
- People with IBS, IBD or Crohn’s disease
WHAT ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE?
While there is no compelling evidence that avoiding gluten will improve health if you don’t have Celiac disease or any other gluten sensitivity, some theories have suggested that the human digestive system has not yet developed to handle the types and amount of grains that are prevalent in our modern diets – which is why so many people report symptoms.
But, the jury is still out on this. We have a lot to learn about why certain people react negatively to gluten without any immune response.
WHY ARE GLUTEN FREE DIETS SO POPULAR?
Marketing, popular media and celebrity endorsements have led to the rise of gluten-free diets. Many people report losing weight, feeling “better”, reduced inflammation, and less joint pain.
While we may be inclined to tie this to gluten consumption (or lack thereof), we cannot discount the fact that people who suddenly overhaul their diet and go gluten-free, may simply just be eating healthier, less processed foods.
People often replace gluten-containing foods with vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins – which in itself can promote better well being. Moreover, diets high in refined carbs and sugar (which many gluten-based products can fall into) have been linked to weight gain, fatigue, and poor mood – all symptoms of NCGS.
Changing your diet may also mean that you are more conscious of your activity level and lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress.
So, although removing gluten may improve symptoms of NCGS, the improvement in your health could also be due to other factors unrelated to gluten.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When I get asked, “should I go gluten-free?”, my answer is always “It depends.”
- Do you experience negative reactions or symptoms when you eat gluten?
- Does it happen all the time or just on occasion?
- What does your diet look like right now – is it optimal in all other aspects?
- Do you have any other underlying health conditions that may contribute to your symptoms?
These are all questions we need to look at. And if you haven’t been diagnosed with Celiac disease, a wheat allergy or any other autoimmune disorders, our best bet is simply through trial and error.
If NCGS is suspected, then my recommendation is always to eliminate all gluten-containing foods for 3-4 weeks and to track your symptoms during that time. Then reintroduce gluten after the elimination period and see if any of the symptoms return/worsen. If you feel better without gluten, then you may have some sensitivity and may want to avoid it. If there’s no difference, then you’re probably okay to keep it in your diet.
Remember, there is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition and scientific research can only tell us so much. At the end of the day, it comes down to how YOU react to what you eat and what makes you feel your best.