When my dad hopped on the gluten-free diet train in 2015, he reported with marvel that his digestive discomfort had lessened.
Ludicrous, I thought. It’s definitely all the dairy in his diet.
In my opinion, “gluten-free” was a passing fad. At the time, I baked cookies and sourdough bread for the Farmer’s Market. I ate gluten at every meal. I also felt like garbage. Yet I couldn’t make the connection, because I wasn’t ready to believe that my favorite foods and livelihood were a source of harm.
After hitting rock bottom in my health in 2020 and searching for answers, the advice “eliminate gluten” kept popping up. I began to research how gluten impacts the body. And, oh. my. word. After spending hours listening to scientists, naturopaths, and doctors talk about the harmful effects of gluten, I’m pretty convinced that it isn’t good for most people.
I know, I’m sad, too. But, I believe that knowledge is power, and the more you know about gluten, the easier it is to resist. And the more you resist, the better you’ll feel. So I share some reasons why gluten is harmful, as well as what helps me avoid it and turn toward foods that make me feel good.
Why is gluten potentially harmful?
1._The gluten protein is too big and difficult for the body to digest.
I’ve heard experts say that anywhere between 30-75% of the American population has problems digesting gluten, meaning they have either celiac disease (1-2% of the population) or are gluten-sensitive. That is a huge number of people.
Why are we so sensitive?
Let’s get into the science, explained as simply as possible. Gluten is a protein made up of chemically bonded amino acids. The stomach is supposed to break down the chemical bonds to liberate these amino acids. Amino acids are essential nutrients in our diet; we need them to build proteins, synthesize hormones, etc. However, the chemical bonds in gluten are extremely difficult for stomach acid to completely break down. The fact that many Americans have weak stomach acid makes it worse. (Note: if you suffer from heartburn and pop Tums regularly, then you’re definitely not breaking down gluten)
When the gluten protein is undigested, your small intestine tries to absorb big long chains of amino acids, causing damage to the thin lining of the intestinal tract. What’s more, gluten stimulates the release of zonulin, a molecule released by the intestinal cells causing the tight junctions of the gut wall to open. This allows undesired, undigested particles to pass through, which is how you develop food sensitivities, chronic inflammation, and uncomfortable symptoms like skin issues, fatigue, brain fog, mood disorders, bloating, and more.
The impermeability of the intestinal tract is key, because this is where nutrient absorption into the bloodstream happens. Nutrient absorption is critical for our bodies to function optimally.
Luckily, our gut lining is able to heal itself in a relatively short amount of time. If you decide that you absolutely need gluten—and I get it, fresh-from-the-oven bread is my special occasion food—then I suggest eating it every once in a blue moon as a treat. If it’s organic, even better. Spacing out your gluten consumption gives your gut time to repair.
2._Gluten is commonly found in foods that raise blood sugar.
Gluten-containing foods are often high in carbohydrates and made from grains, meaning they can be responsible for some serious blood sugar spikes (and weight gain). Bread, cake, cookies, cereals, pasta, crackers, and beer are just some examples of gluten-containing blood sugar spikers.
Chronic high blood sugar results in serious health issues. The most obvious examples include diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but blood sugar issues can also cause hormonal disorders. Insulin, after all, is a hormone. To achieve healthy body equilibrium, your hormones need to be in sync. If your blood sugar is chronically high, then your cells become less sensitive to insulin over time, and your pancreas stops making as much insulin. These conditions are ripe for hormone imbalance, including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. Hormone imbalances can manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, painful periods, intense cravings, stress, insomnia, etc.
Of course there are non-gluten foods that cause blood sugar spikes. It’s not like you can eliminate gluten and say, “I’m good!” You also need to watch your sugar intake, and sometimes gluten-free foods are incredibly high in sugar. If you think brown rice syrup sounds healthy, think again.
3._Gluten-containing grains are usually GMOs and contain chemical pesticides.
If you’re eating all organic, then you can stop reading and rest easy. But if you don’t discriminate, then it might be worthwhile to learn more about what’s in conventionally grown food. This applies to all conventionally grown food, by the way, not just gluten.
Much of our food supply is made up of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are designed to withstand pesticides like RoundUp, which would kill any non-modified plant. GMOs are under-regulated by the US government and are fairly new to the market, so long term effects of GMOs are unknown. However, since they were introduced in 1996, America’s health problems have skyrocketed. Is there a connection? More and more experts are starting to say yes.
Conventionally grown foods are sprayed with pesticides, which keep pests and bad bacteria away from our food. This sounds good in theory, but unfortunately, pesticides are a little too effective. Not only do they sterilize our crops, but they also kill the soil microbes that are supposed to recolonize in our gastrointestinal tract and aid in digestion.
When we consume food with pesticides, some of our intestinal flora (both good and bad) are wiped out by the killing mechanism of the pesticides. The most famous pesticide is Glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in RoundUp and a carcinogenic antibiotic.
Other countries and some communities in the US are starting to ban glyphosate use. However, it’s still commonly used, so I suggest protecting yourself by supporting local, sustainable farms and choosing organic, non-GMO foods.
What can I eat instead?
If you’re truly serious about improving your health, losing weight, and reversing chronic illness, then I recommend eliminating gluten entirely for at least a month. When ready, try incorporating it slowly back into your diet and see what happens. It’s likely that you will feel much better without it.
If you don’t want to eat gluten, what can you eat instead? Depends on where you’re at. Here are two places you could be, or maybe you’re somewhere in between:
I am so gung-ho with the “no gluten” thing. I also want to detox and have normal blood sugar.
Amazing! I dig your willpower. For you, stick to organic, whole, non-processed foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and sustainably raised meat without preservatives.
I want to go gluten-free and all that, but eating that way feels extreme and unrealistic. I also loved baked goods.
This is also okay! If you’re not ready, then don’t eliminate gluten. However, I have some suggestions that might be helpful:
- Stick to organic when possible.
- Consider a personal chef or meal service like Daily Harvest if it’s in your budget. It’s helpful to have pre-made meals so you don’t feel compelled to grab the easy processed foods.
- Cook with more gluten-free whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and millet.
- Look for gluten-free options to the foods you’re craving. Even when you go out to eat, gluten-free pastas and pizza crusts are ubiquitous these days and taste pretty good.
- Make your own gluten-free baked goods using ingredients like almond flour or sprouted buckwheat flour. I typically lower the sugar content and use monk fruit sweetener instead. These days, the internet has a lot of yummy recipes.
Finally, if you need support and accountability from an actual person, a health coach is extremely knowledgeable and great for keeping you on track with your diet goals. If you think that person could be me, go ahead and sign up for a free 15-minute Discovery Call here.