Taking the Mystery Out of Gluten-FreeFeb 28, 2023 09:31AM ● By Tiera Mc Laughlin
Many clients I encounter believe that “gluten free” is a fad diet. I usually share my personal story about uncovering my own Celiac disease and often I’ll hear comments like, “Everyone seems to be going gluten-free, it's everywhere. Should I do it too, or is it only for people with serious disease?”
While the topic of fad diets holds true in many ways, there
is more to this story than meets the eye and it is important to review in
greater depth whether gluten-free or other nutritional changes will work for
you. Learning to how fully evaluate gluten-free and how it can benefit you is
very important. After reading this article, the hope is that you will have more
clarity about your health, especially if you decide to try gluten free as your
The enormous number of foods that are now produced and
labeled gluten-free and the money spent marketing gluten-free items has grown
rapidly. Slick advertising is everywhere and quite misleading, which makes
navigating life changes confusing and challenging for anyone deciding what is
best for their unique body.
History and What is Gluten?
The gluten-free diet was created and implemented in the
1940s when Dr. Willem-Karel Dicke, a Dutch pediatrician, measured an increase
in celiac disease during the war. Today, much of the gluten-free attention may
be attributable to a “fad-diet” culture, as it has become an extension of the
low-fat, no-fat diets of the 80s and 90s. First, let’s take a look at what
gluten is and why gluten-free may have become part of this “fad-diet” culture.
Gluten is commonly known as something that creates a sticky
binding substance when added to breads, pastas, cereals, crackers and beer. It
is what makes yeast rise as we know it in baked goods and breads. Gluten
is a structural protein found in many grains such as wheat, including semolina,
spelt, farro and einkorn in the United States, plus barley, rye, and oats.
If grains are not designated gluten-free, then they may have been
cross-contaminated or may have been grown and processed near wheat. Some people
may ask, “If gluten is in carbohydrates, why is it called a protein?”
A quick review of the science
Everything in nature has a certain chemical and energetic structure or map for how it looks and functions. Foods we commonly think of as fats, proteins, and carbohydrates all have different chemical structures. Proteins are made of smaller building blocks called amino acids that are linked together. Gluten is a protein found in many grains. Our body is able to determine which structure is which, through tools in the immune system. The body is constantly surveying all chemical particles we encounter through touch, smell, and taste, and also using different inputs via sight and sound. It sorts the data into “known” and “unknown” categories and then elicits a hormone or other chemical responses once the particles are deemed safe or unsafe.
Some food particles or amino acid chains link together like
a string of pearls to form a full protein and these strands look very similar
to gluten proteins in the body. This is called molecular mimicry where
particles mimic other proteins and cause the immune system to react as if it
were the wrong item.
The reason for bringing this up is because some people would believe that there is a time and a place to choose gluten-free options, like when someone has autoimmune conditions or Celiac Disease. Autoimmune conditions have many origins, but one of them has to do with immune system recognition of our lifestyle factors, and most times an overactive, hyper-vigilance where it attacks our own body parts or even the proteins or particles in food that we are sensitive to and which are not where they are supposed to be in our body cavities. This amplifies the inflammation, joint pain, and symptoms many people struggle with. We develop food sensitivities for many reasons and getting to the root of these is important for disease management and even symptom reversal. Especially for those with Celiac disease, or those with undiagnosed Celiac disease, gluten and immune attack massive damage to our small intestine lining where we absorb our nutrients to keep our bodies working optimally. In the case of Celiac, gluten is the main agent that the body reacts to and then also many other molecules that look similar, as discussed above.
If someone you know has Celiac disease, or if they have not yet been diagnosed, or if they have a true wheat allergy, they have to perform a true, 100% gluten elimination for life if they wish to be healthy, reduce cancer risk, and live their life without daily complications. Symptoms associated with celiac are one or more of the following: constipation or diarrhea, stomach upset or nausea, fatigue, weight loss or gain (due to malnutrition), rash, and or pain, bloating or gas. Silent or asymptomatic Celiac disease is common and after years pass and the fingerlike villi in the small intestine are damaged, other things can show up like anemia (low blood counts from iron, B12 or other factors), thyroid issues, infertility, malnutrition, low vitamin D levels, other autoimmune conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, headaches, and more. These are not completely silent, but the presentation normally leads to a different direction until many years later when symptoms for the stomach may be recognized. It typically takes numerous years for someone to finally get tested or get properly tested for Celiac disease to get the official diagnosis. For me, it was over 7 years between misdiagnosis and going gluten free to finally getting testing to confirm Celiac and an overlooked Celiac result in my endoscopy stomach scope.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivities
What about those who do not think they have Celiac? Should they try gluten free? This has been the highly variable answer for a long time. Some studies show gluten-free to have great benefit to inflammation and symptom reduction. Other studies have shown weight gain with gluten-free when it was potentially prescribed for weight loss. Other studies show its unhealthy or leads to malnutrition. There are many reasons for this possible increase in weight and likely someone had malnutrition before going gluten-free so these are misleading. Many do not understand the labeling and marketing of products that add high amounts of sugar and heavily processed ingredients into “Gluten-free” items, baking products, pastas, cookies, cakes, candies, and so much more in the Gluten-free aisle at almost any market now and even many restaurants. These foods are not “free” in calories, they are usually not low in sugar, not low in fat or processed ingredients, and there is sometimes low to no nutritional value in these products. It is very important to go deeper than this and not just pick up items from the gluten-free aisle that you make part of your daily life staples. For those who have tried gluten-free items and their symptoms show improvement, this is most likely due to hidden Celiac disease or something called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). Many of us are more sensitive to gluten than we realize and the question that requires more research is, “Is it gluten’s fault or is it our American process of making gluten that is responsible.” There are many answers out there, but if you research chemical fertilizers sprayed on wheat, barley and rye, you will quickly realize our bodies are not designed to handle the chemical load we put it under every day and gluten is a large offender. Many of us are sensitive to gluten or maybe we are sensitive to the pesticides combined with the gluten and our bodies see the challenge in trying to break these down and eliminate them from the body, so it can cause stress and bodily challenges.
Eliminating gluten and changing one’s lifestyle
Some find gluten elimination very helpful at first and then later, they find that their symptoms come back or different ones show up. Remember, getting healthy often comes in layers. You start to allow the body to stop attacking gluten, but you now eat more processed food or other things that are not good for the body, or that it does not recognize, and it will not shed the inflammation or the weight until proper nutrients are available, and processed sugar and chemicals are reduced. Some find they have to eliminate dairy, because it mimics parts of gluten and causes similar reactions. It is important to seek guidance in making these changes in your life, and also make sure to review them with your doctor.
The key lifestyle changes that truly make a difference to our bodies and the easiest way to tackle gluten-free is learning what is processed, how it is processed and or sticking with whole food items on the label that you can pronounce and recipes that are simple, whole foods, anti-inflammatory foods and also can be very tasty and satisfying. This is not always an easy feat, and was not simple in my own personal journey and this is what led me to supporting clients and lifestyle education/coaching as my passion in addition to a whole body approach to wellness that helps people get well and learn to support staying well.
When in doubt, read the label.
Reading labels is super important and researching hidden gluten sources is also very necessary. One example to consider is that crabstick at a sushi restaurant and soy sauce both contain gluten or wheat. Gluten can be hidden under names like maltodextrin, malt, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch and more. If the product may contain wheat or other allergens, it will say it at the bottom of the label, “Contains: wheat, milk, soy” and or “Processed in a facility that shares equipment with wheat” which means it has likely been cross-contaminated and must be avoided for those with Celiac, gluten sensitivities or wheat allergies. If you cannot pronounce the word in the ingredients, it likely is something to look up and most likely avoid if you are trying to pick healthy, ultra-low processed foods for healing.
Getting away from a diet culture mentality takes time and effort for every one of us. Gluten-free looks very different in other countries and their processing and farming results in much less disease. We are beginning to see much more discussion and positive research around “leaky gut” and nutrient deficiencies related to our food and environmental choices, which is very exciting. Leaky gut is what happens when building blocks, like bricks that line our intestines separate and there is no longer any mortar holding them close to one another. Food and particles we consume slip through, and our immune system sends out an army to try to quarantine all of it. Unfortunately, it then causes inflammation and many immune dysregulations such as autoimmune type symptoms or diseases. This is only one part of what happens or what is the root cause of our diseases, but disease truly does begin in the gut.
So how do I go gluten free?
If you are considering going gluten free, I recommend checking your cabinets, reading labels and putting an “X” on items that say wheat, barley, rye, gluten, or that you are unsure of and working on substitutions you can have, so you do not feel restricted. Mindset and perspective are directly tied to success in any change we make in our lives. There is a scanning app you can check out too for your phone. There are apps for finding gluten free restaurants. Trying gluten free is best when committing to at least a total of 4 weeks. If you do something shorter and your gut needs time to heal, you may not see results and you may think gluten free has failed you. Learning to change your food choices and environment takes time, so please be patient with yourself as you learn. If you need further assistance, or you want a fast track to learning about foods, lifestyle, and personalizing a plan for you and your family, please connect with me anytime you are ready. You can start gluten free starting with the gluten free aisle as I did, but remember, the choices are not always healthy and are usually still heavily processed, containing other inflammatory foods and sugar. You may choose to continue progressing to anti-inflammatory whole foods and functional medicine. Through this, I was able to get my vibrant, healthy, energetic, nearly pain-free, 100-pound lighter life back, clearing me of the brain fog, the nutrient deficiencies and much more. Now, I love helping others do the same and make it my mission to walk others through their path to wellness, using a whole-body approach and focus on lifestyle, which also includes food, mindset, environment, toxins and more.
Is gluten free for everyone?
Many who know me say that I would suggest gluten free elimination to everyone. That may be a bit exaggerated, but the way wheat is processed in this country is not healthy, full of pesticides and it is part of the reason we are all continuing to get sicker, especially with gluten and sugar hidden in so many of our daily "go-to" products. More research comes out on this nearly every month on fertilizers, farming processes, foods and our health it seems. The bottom line: if we can find healthier, minimal ingredient alternatives that still taste good, then of course that is going to be better for our bodies.
Testing first! Gluten free after!
There is one other piece that I would like to share for those considering gluten-free in regard to when to get testing for gluten related concerns. Let’s say gluten-free changes your life for the better, but you didn’t get the testing for celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity first. Now you may be completely unwilling to go back to eating gluten because of how good you feel, but I am here to share with you that eating gluten is required when doing the blood testing. If you are not eating gluten or have been gluten free for a while, the testing will not be accurate and this is how many go undiagnosed as well. The gold standard test is through a gastroenterologist and it's called the endoscopy. Again, you must be eating gluten to show the damage in your intestines at the time of the test. The blood tests are accurate if eating gluten. If you have been gluten free already and are reading this, there is one other option you can ask your doctor to order. It is called genetic testing of the HLA DQ genes, normally 1, 2, 2.5, 3 and 8 are the ones which will show sensitivity or possible celiac. These alone are not able to be diagnostic, but if you have these genes, it is very important that you change your lifestyle to minimize or eliminate gluten to help prevent celiac or other diseases from developing.
One more reminder
Check with your doctor prior to making major lifestyle changes. Your body will respond and you may have detox or other symptoms if you radically change your sugar intake, processed food intake, carbohydrate intake or gluten intake and it’s important to be monitoring yourself closely and under supervision.
Dr. Tia McLaughlin is a functional medicine practitioner, health/life coach and pharmacist who specializes in reversing autoimmune symptoms through education and support around clean eating, a gluten-free lifestyle and intuitive eating and lifestyle modification support for those with chronic diseases, gut health issues and celiac disease. She is the owner of Wholistically Simple Rx, in Hanover. For more information, call or text 717-885-6638, email [email protected] or visit DrTiaMcLaughlin.com.