What do Dunkin’ Donuts, Domino’s Pizza and Subway all have in common?
Besides being fast-food chains, they’re among many large companies that have rolled out gluten-free food options in the last few years. You’re probably used to seeing the “special diet” section in Whole Foods, or even your local chain grocery store, but when corporate giants start paying attention to specific dietary trends, you can bet they are more than just a passing fad.
It seems that gluten-free products are everywhere these days, and like many of your health-conscious, smoothie-sipping, label-reading friends, you may be wondering if a gluten-free diet is right for you. And in a culture where pastries, pizza and pasta dominate the standard diet, you might also want to know why wheat is suddenly getting such a bad rap.
Why Grains Cause Pains
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, and it’s even lurking in many sauces, condiments, frozen foods and beauty products. It gives breads their sticky, chewy elasticity and similarly, helps the elements in shampoo, hair products or condiments bind together.
So, what does it do to your insides?
You probably know that for those with celiac disease, exposure to gluten can cause a host of uncomfortable symptoms that range from mild irritations to major problems: headaches, bloating, joint pain, skin rashes, mood issues, intestinal damage and malnutrition, to name a few.
What doctors have discovered more recently, however, is that many patients who test negative for celiac disease still experience symptoms when they’re exposed to gluten. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity is the phrase coined by the medical community for this phenomenon, which seems to be a continuum – some patients appear to be fine eating small amounts of gluten, while others can’t tolerate gluten at all.
Are you confused yet? Join the club.
Conventional medicine is extremely divided when it comes to gluten sensitivity. Doctors still don’t agree on what causes the ailment, precisely what the symptoms include, how many people suffer from it, or even how to diagnose it properly. Yet studies are beginning to show that people without celiac disease report better health outcomes when they eliminate gluten: less pain and bloating, increased regularity, higher energy levels and fewer mood issues.
So if improved health and weight loss can result from cutting out gluten, why isn’t everyone doing it?
Many people may be unaware that gluten is the culprit behind their health issues. Additionally, going gluten free can seem like an intimidating step if your diet is heavy on processed foods. However, giving up gluten is one of the first things I recommend to my patients, as it can lead to sweeping changes in your overall health, vitality, energy and mood.
This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Bread
While gluten has become ubiquitous in our modern diet, humans only began consuming wheat – and adapting to digesting it – about 10,000 years ago. This means that for thousands of years we lived on a diet completely free of wheat products. Moreover, the breads, pastas and wheat products we eat today are largely genetically modified, contaminated with toxins and pesticides and processed in such a way that the human body can’t properly break them down or assimilate their nutrients.
The result? Conditions like inflammation, weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies and more. It’s also possible that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) can predispose people to gluten-related disorders, which means that gluten sensitivity can develop over time. So the pancakes you enjoyed Saturday mornings as a kid may now leave you feeling like you ate a bag of rocks for breakfast.
Simply put, the bread you eat today isn’t your grandmother’s bread. It’s what “Wheat Belly” author Dr. William Davis calls “Frankengrain” – and it is indeed a scary crop. According to Peter Green, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, 1 percent of the U.S. population has gluten allergy, but 97 percent of these people haven’t even been diagnosed. Another alarming statistic? Gluten sensitivity rates are increasing rapidly, doubling every 20 years.
Give Up The Gluten, Kick The Cravings
Doctors like myself who practice holistic medicine aren’t usually surprised when patients get healthy after giving up gluten. And while gluten is currently taking the brunt of the blame, it’s important to note that it falls into a broader dietary category that I call the “white stuff.”
This includes refined carbohydrates, sugar, artificial sweeteners and flour products in general – all foods that should be avoided, or at least minimized, due to the negative effects they can have on hormonal balance, insulin levels and gut flora.
The malabsorption of gluten can actually trigger people with gluten sensitivities to crave and overeat refined carbohydrates, like cookies and breads. It can set off an addictive process where the refined carbs spike your glucose levels and quickly lead to the desire to eat even more carbs and sugar. As a result, you consume more of those not-so-nutritious foods, feel more tired and lethargic, get less exercise and gain weight. It’s a vicious circle.
Diabetes Is At The Door
Another reason to ditch the gluten? Diabetes.
Gluten directly damages islet cells, the cells of the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin, as you may know, keeps your blood sugar balanced and prevents the conditions that lead to diabetes. Studies have shown that people with celiac disease tend to share similar genetic markers with those who have diabetes, meaning that if you’re gluten sensitive, you may be genetically primed to have poor blood sugar control. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also found that babies who are exposed to gluten-containing cereals have a greater risk for developing diabetes later in life.
The good news is that a gluten-free diet appears to help resolve the conditions that may predispose a person to diabetes. So if lifestyle or genetic factors are putting you at risk for the blood sugar condition, it may be wise to eliminate gluten.
Eliminate And Discriminate
If you’ve been eating gluten, and think you might be at risk for celiac disease, talk to your doctor about getting tested. Don’t stop eating gluten before your test, either, as this can interfere with accurate results. Know, however, that even a negative celiac test doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from giving up gluten.
A good way to test yourself for gluten sensitivity is with a detox that eliminates gluten. Take a break from pastas, bread, crackers, cereals and other products made from these grains. Make sure you carefully read labels, too, because gluten hides in other places such as soy sauce, dry-roasted nuts, ice cream, alternative meat products, beer and more. Look for ingredients like seasonings, flavoring, natural flavoring, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, maltodextrin and modified food starch that could be derived from wheat. Oats do not naturally contain gluten, but they are often contaminated with gluten in the production process, so be sure to buy oats that are specifically labeled as gluten free.
If you feel better without gluten in your life, it doesn’t matter if you have celiac disease or not – listen to your gut (literally) and get off the gluten!
Pay attention to how you feel during your detox. After a few days, you may notice the “brain fog” lifting, your energy improving and your digestive issues clearing up. After a few weeks, you can reintroduce gluten into your diet and see how it makes you feel.
What About Weight Loss?
Weight loss is often a natural side effect of going gluten free, in part because you’re probably eating fewer carbohydrates (as long as you’re not going overboard on gluten-free breads, cookies or the like), but also because your blood sugar may become more stable and your cravings for sugar will likely subside.
Again, listen to your body. If you reintroduce gluten and find yourself cranky, tired and bloated, it might indicate you’re better off without the white stuff. And with stores and restaurants across the globe now joining the gluten-free revolution, it’s a sure sign you’re not alone.