As she pushes away the breadbasket and quizzes the waiter about her entrée ingredients, you feel sympathy for your friend whose doctor recently diagnosed her with celiac disease.
Yet ironically, you don’t connect the headaches, fatigue, and other symptoms you commonly experience with your own gluten sensitivity.
About one in 133 people have celiac disease, a genetic condition that can spark an immune reaction if you eat even a little gluten. Celiac disease can trigger and worsen over 140 autoimmune diseases, which occur 10 times more often in people with celiac compared with the general population.
Unfortunately, unless you have full-blown celiac, most doctors won’t acknowledge any problems with gluten. Regardless, about 30 – 40% of the population have some form of gluten sensitivity that isn’t full-blown celiac but creates many of the same symptoms.
According to Dr. Stephan Wangen, author of Healthier Without Wheat, nearly 1/3 of people without the genetic marker for celiac have anti-gluten antibodies in their stool. These antibodies create the same kinds of problem as celiac: a highly reactive immune system goes after gluten and simultaneously damages your small intestine.
Regardless of whether you have full-blown celiac or food sensitivities to gluten, this protein in wheat, rye, and other grains can wreak havoc on your body. Here are 5 reasons you’ll be much better off without gluten.
1. Gluten creates gut permeability. Gluten contains a protein with the unwieldy name zonulin, which damages the tight junctions in your gut. Things not intended to slip through your gut wall suddenly get through, creating an immune response. Delayed reactions, which can occur hours or days later, include joint pain, brain fog, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, and depression. You may not connect, for instance, the headache you have Wednesday morning with the wheat pasta you ate the night before.
2. Gluten triggers inflammation. Besides the immune-related delayed symptoms, gluten-induced leaky gut creates inflammation. Chronic inflammation contributes to every degenerative disease, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and obesity. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death. The results were shocking: while people with full-blown celiac had a 39% increased risk of death, that number increased to 72% for people with gluten-triggered inflammation!
3. Gluten is low in nutrients. Someone on my social media recently commented that without gluten, you’re missing out on key nutrients. Au contraire! Gluten-containing foods are notoriously low in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients compared to vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Don’t believe me? Compare nutrient rock stars like spinach or almonds with whole grain bread or wheat pasta. Whole foods like spinach and almonds come loaded with naturally occurring nutrients, whereas breads, pastas, and other processed gluten-containing foods contain small amounts of cheap, fortified nutrients.
4. Gluten inhibits nutrient absorption. Not only does gluten not bring much nutrient-wise to the party: it also steals nutrients other foods bring! Gluten-triggered permeability, for instance, inhibits your gut from absorbing nutrients and making vitamin B12. Gluten also contains phytates, an anti-nutrient that can block mineral absorption.
5. Eating gluten makes you fat. Gluten contains lectins, which can bind to insulin receptors and create insulin resistance. They can also bind to your intestinal lining, causing you to store more calories as fat. To make things worse, lectins can trigger leptin resistance, which makes you hungrier even after you’ve eaten a full meal. Couple lectins with leaky gut, inflammation, and poor nutrient levels that can stall metabolism, and you’ve got a surefire way to pile on weight. Most gluten-containing carbohydrates also raise your blood sugar, which triggers an insulin response. Higher insulin levels do one thing really well: store fat. When people with weight loss resistance pull gluten, they feel night-and-day better and the scales start moving again.
So I’ve convinced you that not only do you not need gluten, you’re also way better off without it. But I don’t want to leave you hanging. Once you’re ready to give gluten-free eating a try (I’m asking for at least three weeks), these five strategies will make the transition much easier.
1. Don’t do it halfway. You can’t do just a little gluten. To eliminate leaky gut and inflammation, reduce symptoms, and trigger fast fat loss, you’ve got to remove gluten (and the other highly reactive foods I discuss in The Virgin Diet that create food intolerances) for 21 days. I promise you the effort will repay dividends.
2. Don’t fall into the gluten junk trap. Savvy manufacturers have leaped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon with gluten-free cookies, crackers, and numerous other foods. A cookie is a cookie, period, and most of these foods come loaded with as much sugar as their gluten-containing equivalents.
3. Careful with the “legal” grains. Oatmeal, for instance, is naturally gluten free but often processed with gluten-containing grains. Always look for the gluten-free symbol on the package. Better yet, buy whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean protein, which nature packaged as naturally gluten free.
4. Be aware of gluten traps. You know whole wheat bread has gluten. But gluten also hides in strange places, like luncheon meats, mustard, and pickles. Read your labels, learn the traps, and again, always look for the gluten-free symbol.
5. Make lateral shifts. You don’t need to deprive yourself when you remove gluten. Instead, find smart alternatives for the gluten-containing foods you used to enjoy. For instance, swap pasta for quinoa pasta or spaghetti squash. Brown rice wraps or Romaine lettuce can replace wheat wraps. For baking, try almond or coconut flour instead of wheat or rye flour. And if you’re craving pizza, melt a little cashew butter (seriously: it’s fantastic!) and tomato sauce on a portobello mushroom.
Wangen, S. (2009). Healthier without Wheat: A new understanding of wheat allergies, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten intolerance. Seattle, WA: Innate Health Publishing.