You may have noticed that "gluten-free" has become quite the buzz word lately.
Maybe you've seen gluten-free products pop up on the shelves at the grocery store, gluten-free items listed on restaurant menus, or maybe someone you know has told you that they're on a gluten-free diet. But are you still confused about what gluten is and why it's such a big deal? Are you wondering if you should avoid it too?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is estimated that about one third of the population suffers from gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance). Celiac disease --an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten-- affects approximately 1 in 133 people in the United States.
In those affected by celiac disease, ingesting gluten damages the villi (the "finger-like" part of the intestine responsible for absorbing nutrients from food) and this can cause malnutrition and can contribute to a host of digestive disorders and other serious health issues. When those with celiac disease adhere to a 100% gluten-free diet, they can expect their small intestine to heal completely. It might take a few months to a few years, but the good news is that complete recovery is possible just from avoiding gluten.
Celiac disease is one of the most under-diagnosed diseases today. It's also a genetic disorder, so if someone in your family has it it's likely that you have it too. Many people who have celiac disease or a less severe gluten sensitivity don't even know it. In fact, approximately 95% of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other health conditions.
For instance, it's not uncommon for people with celiac disease to be misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn's disease. Imagine the freedom and relief you could experience if the IBS symptoms that you've been suffering from for over 20 years disappeared after just a few days of not eating gluten!
Should you Avoid Gluten?
While there are blood tests available to test for celiac disease, they're not the most reliable. Even if you test negative for celiac disease, you might still have a gluten sensitivity and may notice a big improvement in your symptoms by doing an elimination diet. To do an elimination diet, simply stop eating gluten for 2-3 weeks and notice how you feel. I know many people personally who have experienced weight loss, clearer skin, more energy, fewer (or no more) migraines, less bloating, less gas, and more mental clarity (less brain fog) after they eliminated gluten from their diets. Sometimes it takes only a day or two to notice the difference and other times it might take a few weeks.
Consider eliminating gluten from your diet for 2-3 weeks if you experience any of these common symptoms on a regular basis:
- Chronic Fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Numbness or pain in limbs
More than 100 symptoms have been linked to gluten intake and unfortunately, there aren't a lot of doctors who recommend going gluten-free as an effective form of treatment for their patients. Now that you have the information, you can try it out for yourself and see if your symptoms improved. You may be surprised!
Foods to Avoid
You probably know that gluten is in bread, but it's also lurking in other places, some of which may surprise you. Here's a general list of where gluten can be hiding:
- Bread and Tortillas (gluten-free alternatives include gluten-free bread, brown rice tortillas, corn tortillas, and Pure Wraps)
- Pasta (try quinoa pasta and rice pasta instead)
- Baked Goods (e.g. cookies, cakes, muffins, pastries)
- Pizza Crust
- Hot and Cold Cereals
- Salad Dressings
- Soy Sauce (tamari is a great alternative)
- Oats (though oats are naturally gluten-free, they are often processed alongside wheat and therefore are likely to be cross-contaminated)
- Vitamins and Supplements (as fillers)
- Protein Bars
- Granola Bars
- Candy Bars
- Lunch Meat
Make sure you check the ingredient list to make sure that an item doesn't contain wheat, barley, rye or any of their derivatives. If you're at a restaurant, ask if there's a gluten-free menu or if your server can recommend any gluten-free dishes. Be aware of sauces, marinades, and salad dressings when you're out at restaurants. Most salads are fine if you leave off the salad dressing (ask for oil and vinegar instead) and you can typically ask for meat and vegetables to be cooked plain without the sauce.
My Experience with Gluten
I personally don't have any items in my kitchen that contain gluten and I do my best avoid gluten when I eat away from home.
This wasn't always the case though. I used to eat cereal for breakfast, sandwiches on whole wheat bread for lunch, and anything breaded or served on a bun for dinner. And I considered this to be a "healthy" diet!
Transitioning to an /almost/ gluten-free lifestyle didn't happen overnight. It was a gradual process that took years and wasn't even something I had intended on doing. Because I love experimenting with different foods to see the effects they have on me, I've done many elimination diets and cleanses where I avoided gluten for anywhere from 1 day to 4 weeks. What I found was that when I stayed away from gluten (even for just one or two days), I felt lighter, was less bloated, had clearer skin, and had an easier time managing my weight.
Those results now motivate me to stick to a (relatively) gluten-free lifestyle and I know many other people who share similar experiences. It doesn't feel like you're "giving up" anything when doing so makes you feel so amazing and when you can find a wide variety of delicious food that falls into the gluten-free category. The only thing you're giving up is feeling sick, tired, bloated, heavy, and experiencing countless other undesirable symptoms.
Ready to Give it a Try?
Adopting a gluten-free lifestyle is becoming so mainstream that there are more gluten-free alternatives than ever before. In restaurants and in stores, you can find gluten-free pizza crust, gluten-free bread, gluten-free desserts, gluten-free crackers, and so much more. I personally think they taste better than their gluten-filled counterparts and most of the time people won't even notice the difference!
But if you really want to go gluten-free the healthiest way, keep the packaged foods to a minimum and stick to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and grains. The packaged gluten-free items listed above are great to have when you're transitioning and want substitutes for your favorite foods that typically contain gluten, but they should not comprise the majority of your meals. Even though the package might say "gluten-free" on the front, it's still processed food (i.e. not food found in nature) so like anything else, check the ingredients before you decide whether or not it's something you want to buy.
If you think gluten might be the reason you're not feeling as fantastic as you'd like, I recommend that you eliminate it from your diet for 2-3 weeks and keep a food journal to track how you feel. You won't feel any worse by not eating gluten, so what have you got to lose? Feel free to share your experience going gluten-free in the Comments section below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below I've listed some resources that you might find helpful.
>> GLUTEN-FREE RECIPES
- Most of the recipes on Embrace True Health are gluten-free. Click Here to view the entire gluten-free recipe library.
>> GLUTEN-FREE FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS
- Check out the restaurants I've been to that have plenty of delicious gluten-free options
- Here's a list of chain restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu