The real reason to go gluten free

There is a lot of gab about gluten these days and for good reason. But even if you think going gluten-free is one of the most trendy diet schemes in well, forever, it might be time to listen up. An estimated 100 million Americans are trying to eliminate gluten from their diets and only about one percent actually have diagnosed Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivities--the rest are making the choice for overall health. (And it may be the most important choice you will ever make!)

First of all, what is gluten and why all the fuss? Gluten is a protein in wheat, but it is also found in barley, rye and, on occasion, oats, which are sometimes harvested on the same equipment. For the one percent of people who have the autoimmune disorder called Celiac Disease, gluten can cause damage to the small intestine when it’s ingested. But they aren’t the only ones who may experience symptoms from wheat or gluten. Some people have wheat allergy and when eaten it may cause respiratory symptoms and gastrointestinal upset.  However, the largest group with gluten issues, as many as 18 million, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is not well understood, but may cause similar symptoms. There is growing concern that sensitivity to wheat contributes to systemic inflammation, which can lead to long-term health problems ranging from heart disease and cancer to Diabetes and Multiple Sclerosis.

This concern may be behind the growing theory that avoiding gluten helps you simply feel better, and it’s prompting many more people at adopt “G-free” status. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests there is something to this, but it may not be the gluten at all. A compelling peer-reviewed report published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Toxicology argues that it is not the gluten itself, but rather increased use of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide (also known as Roundup) that is causing gluten intolerance at epidemic proportions. Turns out that glyphosate residues in wheat and some other crops are on the rise due to a farming practice started in the 1990s called “crop dessication,” the practice of adding Roundup to crops shortly before harvest. Why would they do this? Well, exposing wheat to the toxic chemical causes it to release more seeds and creates a higher yield. Even though it is not a licensed practice, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of 2012, 99 percent of durum wheat and 97 percent of spring wheat have been treated with herbicides like Roundup.

It’s pretty interesting to note that the rise of Celiac incidence corresponds closely with the use of this farming practice (see the chart below). What may be more concerning is that symptoms of glyphosate exposure don’t necessarily show up in everyone right away. So even if you don’t notice any problems when you eat bread or pasta you might be getting more than you bargained for as inflammation takes hold in your body. (Glyphosate herbicide anyone?)

Celiac incidence and Glyphosate applied to wheat chart

Even if this evidence doesn’t cause you to head straight for the gluten-free aisle, there are plenty of other reasons to go gluten- or wheat-free. At the very least, it’s safe to say that if you are eating a conventional Western diet, cutting back on wheat and gluten sure couldn’t hurt.

Regardless of what motivates you to go G-free, it’s not a bad idea to get some ground rules and make a game plan before you start, because the gluten-free diet isn’t easy (albeit rice pasta is delicious) and can have some unexpected outcomes — it can bust your budget, annoy your friends and even effect your mood (that is not fun for anyone!).

Start by evaluating your specific mind-body goals—and don’t just take the word of your beautiful friend with the six pack abs. If you are prepared and committed, going gluten free has plenty of positives, and can help you become more aware of how your diet affects your body and your spirit.

Here are some tips to help set your expectations, minimize mistakes and make for a better gluten-free experience:

Don’t think of gluten-free as a weight loss diet. While you could argue that a gluten-free diet pushes you to give up traditional junk food and unhealthy eating habits, like binging on pasta or bread (ohh, that bloated belly), you won’t necessarily lose weight. In fact, Celiac patients who cut out the gluten often experience weight gain as their gut heals and allows better absorption of nutrients. However, if you go gluten-free for overall health by ditching the crackers, pizza and prepared meals for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you very well may drop some pounds and feel better.

But, and this is a big one (no pun intended), now that there are so many “gluten-free” product options, many people now just replace their favorite foods with the gluten-free versions rather than changing to an overall healthy eating plan. The best course on a gluten-free diet is to make the bulk of your diet from whole foods that are naturally free of gluten, such as natural and organic meats, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

And keep in mind that gluten-free packaged foods are notoriously high in sugar. So don’t fall into the trap that gluten-free automatically mean’s healthy. When choosing prepared gluten-free products check the ingredients carefully and look for gluten-free food that emphasizes whole grains and low glycemic index foods that are low in starch and sugars (move over, sugar!). Shift Bars are a great example of healthy and tasty snacks that qualify—with only 1 gram of sugar, 10 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber.

Read product labels: Gluten is a pretty tricky character and is often hard to see in many products. Yes, it is in bread and pasta, but it might also be hiding in your salad dressing, soy sauce, veggie burger, beer and even vitamins, supplements and personal care products—you even have to be careful about lip and eye creams that may contain vitamin E from wheat germ. Yikes!

Be diligent about fiber: Under the best of circumstances it’s hard to get enough fiber, and many people are already short on the fiber-intake scale. But whether you are eating grains or not, fiber is still important, and you have to make up the difference with other foods or it can cause some tummy trouble (you don’t want that!). Fiber creates the balance in your microbiome, which keeps inflammation in check and helps keep things moving smoothly--get the drift?

Become nutrient savvy: There is no room for second guessing. When you cut out the wheat, rye, and barley you might also lose important nutrients (besides fiber) from your diet, like folic acid, iron, vitamin D and zinc. These nutrients are heavy hitters and deficiencies can cause problems. Make sure you’re eating a well-balanced variety of nutrient-rich foods and know the signs of nutrient shortfalls. Excessive fatigue, weakness, mood swings, constipation and irregular periods may all be indications of a deficiency.

Do a trial run. The proof is in the pudding (metaphorically speaking), so if you are not sure how no wheat and gluten will affect you, it’s a great idea to experiment by eliminating gluten for a few weeks and see how it affects you. But make sure it is 100 percent gluten elimination! Then, after the trial run, go back to the gluten- wheat-diet and see what happens. After that you can decide for yourself whether to continue the gluten-free life.

It’s not always easy, but there are plenty of positives about going gluten free. It’s possible you might even feel happier (seriously!). Scientists are only beginning to understand gluten’s impacts in the body and they are now making potential links to gluten and symptoms of depression. Going gluten free may not guarantee a better mood, but taking charge of your diet and nutrition is empowering and has wide ranging impacts for body, mind and soul. And don’t forget that as you begin to look and feel better, you’ll be inspired to make everything else in your life better too.



Is roundup the cause of gluten intolerance. Mother Earth News. Feb. 2014.

The real reason wheat is toxic (it’s not the gluten). The Health Home Economist.

2012 Agricultural Chemical Use Survey. Wheat. May 2013. US Depart of Agriculture.

Nine things you should know before going gluten free. Sarah Klein. Feb. 2014.

Don’t make these five mistakes if you’re going gluten free. Miranda Carvell. June 2014.