Thinking about a perfect gluten-free diet plan? You’re not alone.
During the past decade, there has been an impressive increase in the popularity of the gluten-free diet (GFD) which is now the trendiest alimentary habit in the United States and other countries.
According to recent surveys, as many as 100 million Americans consume gluten-free products within a year. A quick internet search will pull up plenty of articles and blogs loudly claiming that eating a gluten-free diet plan is unhealthy, that it’s a fad, that it’s expensive, and that it’s too hard to implement to make much of a difference anyway.
Why Gluten-Free Diets Are Popular
Talking about gluten-free diet plans, like discussing religion or politics, can produce strong feelings. While most sources claim that gluten is safe for everyone — except those who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that affects about 1% of Western populations and is triggered when eating gluten, and those who have non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity, which will be covered later — there are health experts coming out and saying that they believe gluten is now harmful to most people.
Is there merit to what these particular doctors and scientists have to say? In this blog, we explore gluten-free diet plans and their impact on our health.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye.)
In wheat, gluten is composed of two main proteins — glutenin and gliadin.
Glutenin dissolves in water and is responsible for the strength and elasticity of the dough made from wheat flour. Gliadin is insoluble in water and an essential component that gives bread its ability to rise properly during baking.
Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. The name gluten comes from the Latin word for “glue.”
Gluten is commonly used as an additive in processed foods for improved texture, moisture retention, and flavor.
The most common food sources of gluten
Wondering how prevalent gluten is in your daily diet? These are the most common sources, according to WebMD:
- Bread: Bread, rolls, buns, bagels, biscuits, and flour tortillas
- Baked goods: Cake, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, pies, pancakes, and waffles.
- Pasta: Spaghetti, fettuccine, macroni, lasagne and ravioli.
- Cereal: Many breakfast cereals and oats are often raised and processed with wheat, so unless they are labeled gluten-free, oat products will also contain gluten.
- Crackers: Crackers, pretzels, and chips with malt vinegar or wheat starch seasonings.
- Beer: Beer and some liquors have added wheat.
- Gravy: Powdered gravy mixes, gravies, and oven-ready meals containing gravy.
- Soup: Many canned and boxed soups use wheat flour as a thickening agent.
Gluten also shows up in many unexpected places. It’s easy to consume a lot of gluten without realizing it.
It’s in processed meat, reconstituted seafood, and vegetarian meat substitutes. You’ll also find gluten in soy sauce and most salad dressings. Where else?
More often than not, French fries are fried in batter containing wheat flour or contaminated by fryers used for food items containing gluten. Even energy bars often use oats that are not gluten-free.
Why gluten use is so common?
Because of its versatility, gluten is used as a thickener, emulsifier, and gelling agent in candies, ice cream, butter, seasonings, stuffing, and marinades. And you can even find it as a filler and a coating in medications or confectionery.
Additional places where gluten could surface include lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm, or other cosmetics, oral care, dental products, communion wafers, herbal or nutritional supplements, vitamins, supplements, and Play-Doh.
The average daily gluten intake in a Western diet is thought to be 10–40 g/day. This figure is based on the amount of gluten in an average slice of whole wheat bread, which contains around 4.8 grams, and the amount of gluten in a serving of pasta, which is roughly 6.4 grams.
A tiny fraction of that amount, 10 milligrams of gluten per day, or basically a small plate with very few breadcrumbs, is generally considered by experts to be a safe amount for individuals with celiac disease.
In other words, if you have celiac disease, stay far away from anything containing gluten.
Gluten and the gut
Does gluten only affect those who have celiac disease? New research by Alessio Fasano, MD, shows us that when anyone, whether they have gluten sensitivity or not, eats a gluten-containing food, the gluten proteins make their way through the stomach and arrive at the small intestine.
In the small intestine, the body responds by producing zonulin, a chemical that signals the tight junctions of the intestinal walls to open, creating temporary permeability.
In other words, in every human body, gluten directly impacts the integrity of the intestinal lining through zonulin production, eventually leading to a leaky gut in susceptible people.
Gut cells renew every 48 hours; however, for someone who eats gluten and is gluten sensitive, this permeability will not heal within that 48-hour period, and their gut will remain leaky.
Is there a health impact of a leaky gut?
A leaky gut plays a role in certain gastrointestinal conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some studies show that leaky gut may be associated with other autoimmune diseases (lupus, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis), chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, allergies, asthma, acne, obesity, and mental illness.
What else is gluten known to do?
Not much good. We know it boosts oxidative stress, an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. It also induces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are chemicals that damage cells.
Gluten intake increases apoptosis (cell self-destruction) and decreases cell viability and differentiation.
Gluten-related health disorders
Only a small percentage of the population has been diagnosed with a gluten-related disorder, but a large portion of the population has symptoms that a sensitivity to gluten may cause.
Lethargy, irritable bowel symptoms, brain fog, joint pain, diarrhea, abdominal pain and distension, weight loss, and poor appetite, recurrent ulcers in the mouth, chronic headaches, itchy rashes, growth delays (in children), and delayed menarche may seem completely unrelated. Still, these can all be symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
Gluten-related disorders can manifest themselves in any tissue of the body.
The following three conditions are all impacted by consuming gluten:
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine’s villi and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. The ingestion of gluten triggers it.
An estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1% of the population, has celiac disease. However, recent screening studies point to a potentially higher prevalence than 1% in the United States.
It’s estimated that up to 83% of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. The average time a person waits to be correctly diagnosed is 6-10 years.
Celiac disease can lead to a number of other disorders, including infertility, reduced bone density, neurological disorders, some cancers, and other autoimmune diseases.
This is a genetic disposition where the disease is triggered in susceptible individuals carrying the human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-DQ2 or DQ8.
The only known treatment is a lifelong, strict gluten-free diet.
Research shows that the protein casein in dairy can mimic gluten — a phenomenon is known as molecular mimicry — and create an inflammatory response because of the similarities.
One recent study found that as many as 50% of those with celiac disease reacted to dairy casein proteins. This is known as cross-reactivity, where the body reacts to the original trigger and another trigger that resembles the first one.
A wheat allergy is an IgE-mediated reaction to the insoluble gliadins of wheat. Immunoglobulins are antibodies that play an important role in fighting infections.
There are 5 different types of immunoglobulins — IgA, IgM, IgG, IgD, and IgE — and their main difference is their structure and function. Whereas IgE is associated with allergies, IgA is expressed in mucosal tissues, and IgG is found in all body fluids.
IgG is the most abundant type of antibody; it proceeds against bacterial and viral infections. IgM is found mainly in blood and lymph fluid, and little is known about
IgD except that it exists in small amounts in the blood.
There are multiple forms of wheat. Wheat manifests as wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, kamut (Khorasan wheat), and einkorn.
Allergic symptoms to wheat include itching, hives, trouble breathing, or anaphylaxis — a life-threatening reaction — nausea, abdominal pain, itching, and swelling lips or tongue.
An estimated 0.4% of the world’s population is allergic to wheat. The majority of cases are among children, and most will outgrow their wheat allergy by age 6.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS)
While celiac disease is a well-recognized condition, there is much debate on whether gluten proteins can trigger symptoms in people with negative blood tests and normal biopsies.
These people experience symptoms found in celiac disease, such as brain fog, depression, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue, when they have gluten in their diet, yet do not test positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
The terms non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS) are generally used to refer to this condition when removing gluten from the diet resolves symptoms.
Testing for gluten-related disorders
The two most common ways to determine if a person has celiac disease include a blood test and a small intestine biopsy.
Gluten is made up of several hundred peptides, and gliadin is made up of 12 different sub-fractions. Most modern testing focuses on only alpha-gliadin (one of the 12 sub-fractions), leaving considerable room for error and false negative tests.
Many people with gluten sensitivity are misdiagnosed because they do not react to alpha-gliadin but instead to one of the other portions of gluten.
If you think you may have celiac disease, consult your doctor before trying a gluten-free diet, as going gluten-free before taking the test will also generate false negatives.
Grains in human history of nutrition
Grains have played a major role in human history. The development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago changed the way humans lived, allowing them to say goodbye to their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles and hello to farming and permanent settlements.
Out of agriculture, cities, and civilizations grew. Because crops and animals could now be farmed to meet demand, the global population skyrocketed — from some 5 million people 10,000 years ago — to more than 7 billion today.
Though the transition from wild harvesting was gradual, the switch from a nomadic to a settled way of life is marked by the appearance of early Neolithic villages with homes equipped with grinding stones for processing grain .
Today, corn (or maize), rice, and wheat are the most produced and consumed grains. Other grains that are consumed in smaller amounts include barley, oats, sorghum, millet, rye, and several others. Humans eat grains and are also used to feed and fatten up livestock.
The wheat today is not the wheat it was back then. Not only does it look different, but it is also biologically and genetically different than Old World wheat. The reason for the massive transformation? Cross-breeding and genetic manipulation with the goal of producing a higher-yielding and lower-cost crop started in the 1940s. Norman Borlaug led the effort to develop semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to world peace by increasing food supply.
Harvesting practices today contribute to gluten disorders
Common wheat harvest protocol in the United States is to drench the wheat fields with Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) several days before the combine harvesters work through the fields, as the practice allows for an earlier, easier, and bigger harvest.
As a result, glyphosate can be found in wheat, one of the most common ingredients of the modern Western diet . Tests from the Environmental Working Group found traces of the weed killer glyphosate in 6 types of Cheerios, 14 Nature Valley products, and Fiber One’s oatmeal raisin soft-baked cookies.
While the herbicide industry maintains that glyphosate is minimally toxic to humans, research suggests otherwise by shedding light on how glyphosate disrupts mammalian physiology and contributes to leaky gut and gluten sensitivity.
The drastic difference between refined and non-refined grains
Regardless of whether they are gluten-free or not, there is a drastic difference between whole and refined grains.
Whole grains comprise three main parts — the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the grain’s hard outer layer, containing fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
The germ is the nutrient-rich core that contains carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and various phytonutrients. The endosperm is the biggest part of the grain and contains mostly carbs and protein.
Refined grains are like whole grains, except the best stuff has been removed. In refined grains, nothing is left except the high-carb, high-calorie endosperm. The fiber and nutrients have been stripped out. That’s why refined grains classify as empty calories, which get broken down fast and can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels when consumed.
But watch out for labeling on whole-grain food packaging, as it can be highly misleading. In most products, whole grains are pulverized into fine white flour with a very small amount of bran added. Not surprisingly, these products have similar metabolic effects as their refined counterparts.
Examples include processed breakfast cereals such as “whole-grain” Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs — foods that are not healthy, even though they may contain small amounts of (pulverized) whole grains.
How refined grains contributed to obesity
Numerous studies show that eating refined grains leads to overeating and may therefore cause weight gain and obesity. Refined grains have also been linked to numerous metabolic diseases. They can drive insulin resistance and are linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
So, depending on your physiology, but more likely than not, that healthy whole-grain muffin may not be quite so innocent.
Can you get addicted to refined wheat?
And it gets even more interesting. Have you ever felt addicted to certain foods? Meet the food opioids. Both gluten from wheat and related grains and casein from dairy products contain peptides called gluteomorphin and caseomorphin, respectively.
These peptides have been shown to bind to opiate receptors in the brain, thus mimicking the effects of opiate drugs like heroin and morphine. These foods yield specific effects on your brain, emotions, and behavior, with results that depend on your individual susceptibility.
These effects may manifest as depression, behavioral outbursts, or appetite stimulation that ranges from moderate to uncontrolled food obsessions.
Meet gluten-free grains
Thinking you may be ready to swap your Wonder Bread for something healthier? The following grains are gluten-free, and they are very healthy in their whole-grain state:
- Quinoa — Rich in fiber and considered a complete protein.
- Teff — Has a mild nutty flavor profile and is rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
- Flax — A nutritional powerhouse, antioxidant-rich flax seeds contain an amazing amount of dietary fiber, protein, micronutrients, and, very importantly, omega-3 fatty acids, a vital element in controlling inflammation.
- Millet — A tiny round grain high in fiber and protein.
- Sorghum — Rich in B vitamins and minerals like magnesium, iron, and phosphorus.
- Buckwheat is not related to wheat, even though it is in its name. It’s loaded with protein and has a low glycemic index, meaning it releases glucose slowly and steadily (which is what we want).
- Amaranth — An ancient grain that has been cultivated for nearly 8,000 years.
- Oats are naturally gluten—free but often cross-contaminated when processed in gluten-containing processing plants.
- Corn — Most corn is genetically modified and inflammatory.
- Rice — Many rice products are high in arsenic. The rice plant is particularly good at pulling arsenic out of the soil, and a fair amount of it is left from prior pesticide use. Arsenic in large amounts can be lethal, but even smaller amounts can lead over time to cancer and other health problems and learning problems when infants and children are exposed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have cautioned parents about limiting rice and rice products in their children’s diet.
Nutritional imbalances of going gluten-free
As of late, grocery stores have been stocking their shelves with refined gluten-free baby food, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bakery products, and gluten-free ready meals.
The gluten-free products market was valued at $4.3 billion in 2019 and is estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027, registering a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 7.2% from 2020 to 2027. These foods are happily welcomed by those who are on a gluten-free diet.
These foods are marketed as healthier alternatives to their gluten counterparts, but are they really?
Take a look at the ingredients, and you’ll likely see some combination of rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato starch, and guar gum as a substitute for white flour. These are highly refined industrial starches that spike blood sugar.
Gluten-free processed foods are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, meaning that gluten-free products are nothing but white paste.
The gluten-free industry does not have any regulations to enrich the flour the way wheat has to be enriched with B vitamins. Gluten-free foods are commonly less fortified with folic acid, iron, and other nutrients than regular, gluten-containing foods.
A gluten-free diet’s most common deficiencies are insufficient calcium, iron, manganese, and zinc.
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Foods that are naturally gluten-free
Much healthier than processed gluten-free food is a naturally gluten-free food. Naturally, gluten-free foods include fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy (unless you have celiac or are dairy-sensitive), beans, legumes, and nuts.
When embracing a gluten-free diet, it’s imperative to replace your source of prebiotics, a form of dietary fiber that feeds the “friendly” bacteria (probiotics) in the gut.
With wheat providing 78% and barley providing 3% of prebiotics for average North Americans, a non-guided gluten-free diet, which does not purposefully replace these critical prebiotics, runs the risk of creating a starvation state for the resident probiotics, easily creating an inflammatory environment in the microbiome.
Good sources of prebiotics:
- Chicory root is often used as a caffeine-free coffee replacement.
- Dandelion greens are a fiber-rich substitute for greens in your salad.
- Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten cooked or raw.
- Garlic is a tasty herb with prebiotic benefits.
- Asparagus is a vegetable rich in prebiotic fiber and antioxidants.
- Bananas are rich in fiber.
- Apples are rich in pectin fiber. A 2016 study found that pectin from apples could promote healthy gut microbiota, decrease inflammation and suppress weight gain and fat accumulation in rats with obesity.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi are also great sources of prebiotics and probiotics — these live organisms that directly add to the population of healthy microbes in your gut.
Healthy approaches to gluten-free diet plan
Most health experts will agree that when it comes to food, we should emphasize whole foods, prioritize high-nutrient density, stay away from sugar, minimize processed foods, and eat enough quality protein, which tends to come with organic, grass-fed, wild-caught, and pasture-raised labels.
There are multiple grain and grain-free food approaches known for their health benefits, such as the Mediterranean, paleo, and vegan diets, and even the pagan diet, a diet inspired by combining key principles from, you guessed it, the paleo and vegan approaches.
There is no perfect diet for everyone. Subtle differences in genetics, body type, physical activity, and environment can affect which type of diet you should follow. What works for one person may not work for the next.
To figure out what you should do, experiment with an approach that resonates with you, and see how you feel.
Want to try a gluten-free diet plan? Here’s how to start
According to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center published in 2014, a full 63% of Americans believe that a gluten-free diet could improve their mental or physical health. And up to a third of Americans are cutting back on gluten in the hope that it will improve their health or prevent disease.
There is no nutrient in gluten grains you cannot get from other foods. However, as we have expressed, it is important to do it strategically. Otherwise, nutritional deficiencies are a real possibility.
Do you drool at the smell of good Italian sourdough but still think about going gluten-free? The first step is to decide why you want to do this intentionally. What health benefits are you hoping to experience?
For those with a gluten-related disorder, going gluten-free is never the treatment in itself. If this is you, meet with a nutritionist to make sure you are following the 5 Rs:
- Remove the offending foods from your diet.
- Replace what is missing (add the digestive enzymes for proper digestion).
- Restore the balance with prebiotics and probiotics to support good bacteria in your gut.
- Repair the gut lining with quality supplements.
- Rebalance by addressing the external stressors in your life to restore balance and protect the gut.
Prior to going to the grocery store, create a shopping list. This will help you stick to your plan and not get distracted or overwhelmed by all of the options. At the store, mostly shop the perimeter, which is where you will find the naturally gluten-free whole foods: fruits, vegetables, lean meat and poultry, fish, dairy, legumes, some grains, and nuts.
Treat gluten-free processed products like crackers and bread as an infrequent splurge rather than an everyday item. They’re delicious and won’t be a detriment to your health as long as they aren’t a daily staple.
Protecting yourself from accidental gluten intake
Have you heard of the term “glutened”? This is when you’re intentionally trying to stay away from consuming gluten, and you’ve accidentally ingested it and experienced symptoms as a result.
If this happens, drink plenty of fluids to help flush your system, and consider taking digestive enzymes that will break down the gluten and binding agents like activated charcoal that will bind to the toxins and help reduce gas and bloating from a gluten reaction.
Give yourself the gift of slowing down so that you can fully recover. To bounce back, get plenty of rest, avoid difficult tasks, skip lactose-containing foods, revert to whole foods, and don’t take chances during this time.
Finally, do you find yourself wishing there was a pill you could take before eating just in case you accidentally consume gluten? One that could stop gluten from entering the small intestine, reducing the symptoms? Research findings presented in 2017 suggest that an enzyme called Aspergillus niger-derived prolyl endopeptidase (AN-PEP) may be able to do just this.
Final thoughts: Going gluten-free diet plan
Today, numerous over-the-counter products on the market claim they can help improve the body’s digestion of gluten and simply take them before you eat. Be cautious since, currently, there is no strong evidence that they do indeed help.