Should I be gluten free?
Going “gluten free” continues to be a common diet practice and marketing term in our country, and we can bet you either know someone who follows this eating style or perhaps have tried it yourself. Yet what we find is that many people don’t really know if they should be gluten free in the first place, and if they should, why does it matter? To help clear things up, we’ll dive into this more below.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in the grains of wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives these grains structure, flexibility, and holds them together. Without gluten, things like bread and pasta would likely have a stiff, hard texture rather than one that is flexible and slightly chewy, and would fall apart more easily.
Some of the most common food sources of gluten include:
- Most breads & pastas (unless certified gluten-free)
- Traditional doughs, crusts and pastries
- Other products made with wheat such as crackers, flour tortillas, english muffins, bagels, etc
Gluten can also be an ingredient in many foods, such as processed meats, beer, vinegars, soy sauce, many sauces and gravies, and more.
Why might gluten be a problem?
Going gluten free was originally recommended as an essential treatment for people with Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that affects the gut and requires a gluten free diet to be managed. Yet even people without Celiac disease may be intolerant to gluten, or have a condition in which removing gluten from their diets can help manage symptoms. For various reasons, gluten intolerance, also referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, has been on the rise in our culture and is now estimated to affect 18 million Americans. While the cause of the increase is sometimes unclear, some factors that may be playing a role include:
- New wheat varieties that have a higher gluten content
- Increased intake and exposure to gluten in the diet
- Use of pesticides on gluten-containing crops which may interfere with its oral and digestive tolerance
- Changes in genetics
- Imbalanced diet overall, which can negatively impact the gut and make a gluten sensitivity more likely to develop
For some people (even those without gluten sensitivity), gluten has also been shown to promote inflammation and contribute to an altered balance of gut bacteria (known as dysbiosis). Each of these things can manifest in different ways and cause potential issues in the body (described more below).
Who could be sensitive to gluten?
A sensitivity to gluten may develop over time and may occur as a result of the development of various conditions and disorders.
Some conditions that may warrant eliminating gluten include:
- Digestive disorders such as IBS and SIBO, since gluten has been shown to negatively impact the gut microbiome and increase intestinal permeability (which means potentially worse symptoms)
- Unexplained allergies, since gluten intolerance can negatively affect the immune system and make allergies more likely to develop
- Autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, hashimotos, and fibromyalgia, which gluten may also interfere with
- Inflammatory conditions like migraines, arthritis, and acne, since gluten can promote inflammation in certain people and make these conditions even worse
- Mental and mood disorders such as ADHD, autism, and chronic, unexplained difficulty concentrating, or depression. These also may be caused in part from inflammation associated with gluten sensitivity
- Diagnosed food sensitivity to gluten or any gluten containing food
If you suspect you may be intolerant or sensitive to gluten, here are some symptoms to look out for (note that they aren’t limited to just the gut!)*:
- Frequent constipation, diarrhea, stomach cramping, or excessive gas or bloating
- Joint pain
- Unexplained mood changes
- Lack of ability to think clearly (aka: “brain fog”)
*Note that each of these symptoms can also be caused by other things, so more thorough evaluation may be needed. This list is referring to symptom occurrence after eating gluten specifically.
Keep in mind, though, that gluten isn’t the cause or solution for everyone. Many nutrient dense foods contain gluten, so it is not wise or necessary to avoid it unless you have one of the conditions described above, or have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance or have been advised by a trusted healthcare professional to do so for other reasons. Since it can be tricky to determine whether or not you should remove gluten from your diet, we always recommend working alongside a trained professional (like us!) to help guide you.
Not everyone needs to eliminate gluten, but there are many circumstances which may warrant removing gluten for some people. The good news is that following a gluten free diet has become easier than ever before with a greater variety of gluten free products on the market. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions or for help determining whether or not you should be gluten free and for help planning a gluten free eating plan!