Should you go gluten-free?
Every once in a while, we consume gluten taken from the food that we eat. Irresistible bread, cereals, pasta, and crackers are few examples of food that we are eating that contains gluten. Although the word gluten is no longer a strange word nor unnoticed by people, not everyone understands it and its purpose.
Even if not everyone understands what gluten is in the human diet, the gluten-free diet is a fastly growing movement. There are many things advertised about this diet that can overwhelm the average consumer.
To understand the gluten-free diet, the Zero Waste Lifestyle System interviewed food and lifestyle bloggers, cooks, restaurateurs, nutritionists, doctors, people suffering from celiac disease, gluten-free brands, environmental experts, agriculture experts, and food industry experts. Get inspired by their insights to eat more healthily based on your bodily needs.
What is gluten?
Dr. K.L. Ong, a Physician and a fellowship-trained Orthopedic Surgeon at Dr. Ong Kee Leong Orthopaedics, said that gluten is a combination of two proteins namely – glutenin and gliadin. These are found in grains similar to what was mentioned above – rye, wheat, barley, and spelt. Moreover, it also serves its purpose in maintaining a food’s shape. In the case of bakers, gluten plays a pivotal role in shaping our bread, even pasta and cereals. Healthwise, eating gluten-rich food is doing wonders in decreasing the likelihood of heart disease and reducing the risks of getting type 2 diabetes.
Gluten, says Lisa Richards, Nutritionist, and author of the bestselling book The Candida Diet, is a group of natural plant proteins found in many grain-based foods containing wheat, rye, barley, and triticale.
According to Mobarok Hossain of iwassweet.com, gluten serves its purpose for the “elasticity in doughs. It was first identified as the causative agent of celiac disease but it’s now been determined to be an inflammatory food product that can trigger chronic illness even if you’re not a celiac patient (or someone with any ailment at all).
Having a hard time classifying grains containing gluten? Tayler Silfverduk, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, says that BROW – barley, rye, oats, and wheat – can help us remember gluten-containing grains.
Rebecca Pytell of Strength and Sunshine also says, “Gluten is in the endosperm of the grain (a tissue produced in the seeds), nourishes plant embryos during germination and provides the elasticity or “chewiness” of gluten-containing foods.”
All nutritionists and dietitians concur that gluten is the umbrella term for a group of proteins (glutenin and gliadin). These are core proteins. They are building blocks that maintain the form.
With that said, how come nutritionists would discourage the intake of gluten-containing food?
What dangers are there in eating gluten?
According to Rebecca Pytell, “To the average person, none. Unless you have celiac disease.”
Gluten is not necessarily bad for the health of an average person. However, people with celiac disease may be at risk.
A Harvard study approximates 3% of the population has a gluten sensitivity and they experience adverse reactions upon the consumption of gluten-containing foods, says Jim Mumford, Creator of Jim Cooks Food Good.
Hossain also says that constantly consuming gluten will lead to inflammation and eventually diseases related to autoimmune dysfunction which can cause severe consequences like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity when left untreated.
To Dr. Matthew Roberson is a board-certified family medicine physician with Paloma Health: Eating gluten can trigger adverse reactions. This is often true for people with an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s disease. In the short term, even as soon as right after you eat, gluten can cause uncomfortable symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, bloating, or even a breakout. Over the long term, however, studies show that people with autoimmune diseases may also develop celiac disease from eating gluten. Those with autoimmunity also deal with some level of intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), where some molecules pass through the intestinal walls into your bloodstream. Then, your immune system attacks them, thinking they are foreign invaders.
Tayler Silfverduk, RDN, adds, “There is another condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (also known as gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity) which has overlap with all symptoms of celiac aside from the small intestinal damage.”
To further detail the dangers of gluten, we shall discuss the celiac disease and the symptoms suffered by the main victims of gluten-containing foods.
What Is Celiac Disease?
RDN Harland Adkins of Fast Food Menu Prices: “Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where consuming gluten in any form can cause serious harm, like long-term organ damage. In people with
celiac disease, gluten in the bloodstream triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. This can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, cause a host of symptoms, and lead to other problems like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, and seizures.
According to proven studies, a person with a celiac disease who consumes gluten from gluten-containing food triggers an immune response in their small intestine – an autoimmune reaction that damages the villi in the small intestines. Now, villi are specialized for absorption. Apparently, they have thin walls. Hence, upon the intake of gluten and its reaction, perhaps causing damage towards the thin walls, it can be dangerous indeed for people who have celiac disease.
For Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD of Balance One Supplements, people with celiac disease and were able to consume gluten might risk flare-ups that would possibly lead to chronic fatigue, significant weight loss, painful gas, bloating, irritability, and even depression.
Gluten intake could also reduce the absorption of nutrients. Perhaps, personally, the hardest part of being gluten-sensitive is fighting the urge to take in foods that are delicious but have gluten in them. It really does change one’s lifestyle. This is highly dangerous for children as it will affect their growth and development.
David Beatty, an MRCGP (Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioner), MBBS, and DRCOG (Diplomate (diploma holder) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), provided us a list of symptoms of celiac disease and how to identify them:
- Weight loss
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Abdominal Pain
- Altered Bowel Habit
- Mouth ulcers
- Deficiencies of folic acid (vitamins k, d, calcium, and other minerals)
- It can be associated with numb hands and feet, skin rashes, psychological disorders, fluid retention, cerebrospinal degeneration, and reduced fertility
How to check for celiac disease?
- “A blood test for Tissue Transglutaminase (tTG) will pick up the vast majority of cases.
Other blood tests for Endomysial Antibody (EMA) or Deamidated Gliadinpeptide Antibody (DGP) are sometimes used.
- The “Gold Standard” test is a small bowel biopsy – the merits and risks of this would be best discussed with a gastroenterologist.
The question remains with, what’s with gluten that it damages the small intestine? Why is this dangerous? The digestive system is like a house that is barricaded with walls and gates, disallowing intruders to trespass unless allowed by the owners. Zonulin acts like the locks on the gates. Gluten is like substances that pick on locks for it to open. As it was able to unlock the locks without using the keys, it allows intruders to get inside the gate and walls – the gates could open widely. Thus, intruders that bring danger could enter the premises of the house.
In a shorter sense, the walls of the intestine become larger and permeable, due to gluten, allowing particles that should not pass through the small intestine, get through. When toxins and unwanted organisms enter the wrong tube it causes widespread inflammation and worse, disease.
Unbeknownst to many, gluten can bring both benefits and harm to the body. Dr. K.L. Ong says, “I’m often asked by my patients whether or not gluten is a benefit or harmful to the body. And I always give them one answer – it depends. While more people are reacting to gluten positively, some were found reacting differently to it and suffered mild side effects like fatigue and bloating while, and a few got severe ones like intestinal damage and unintentional weight loss especially those with celiac disease.”
In layman’s terms, it depends on the individual’s body. Apparently, for those who dislike eating meat and cholesterol, gluten-containing food is alternative for proteins. But for those who are gluten-sensitive and has celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is a must.
What is a gluten-free diet?
As for those who are gluten-sensitive, the gluten-free diet is a must. This is basically a diet free of wheat and cereal grains which consists of gluten. This diet will look different for everyone depending on the person and their reason for needing to be gluten-free, says Tayler Silfverduk, RDN. Things that may differ include cross-contact precautions (the prevention of gluten coming into contact with gluten-free food), level of strictness, and more.
According to Brandi Muilenberg, an Integrative Nutritional Health Coach and the owner of Functionally Autoimmune, many non-food products also use gluten due to its binding properties. Thus a gluten-free diet would also eliminate these types of products as well.
In this diet, gluten-sensitive people must avoid eating processed food such as cereals and grains. Hence, it is advised to eat whole single ingredient foods – which are naturally gluten-free.
Who should skip gluten?
For starters, people who should skip gluten are people with celiac disease and those who cannot tolerate gluten. Brandi Muilenberg suggests that even those who are autoimmune clients should also avoid gluten-containing foods as much as possible due to their high inflammatory effect on the body.
Hossain also recommends skipping gluten to:
b. If you have type 1 diabetes and are taking insulin shots even occasionally, then avoid gluten because it can cause a dangerous rise in blood sugar levels.
c. People who are at risk for developing kidney stones should avoid gluten because it can increase oxalate absorption by up to forty percent!
Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW, a patient diagnosed with silent celiac disease has this to say during my interview with her regarding her struggle with gluten:
“For me, gluten has become akin to poison. I am absorbing only 10% of the protein I eat; I have edema in my legs that have been there for decades and ignored by doctor after doctor. The clues were there in labs.
It is hard to have servers take me seriously when I say I need gluten-free that is not contaminated because so many others are not eating it but can. For many of those, they can afford cross-contamination. We are 20% of the 1% who have celiac. Not even doctors know who we are.”
Marianne Sarcich also shares: “I cannot eat gluten. And it’s not because of celiac disease which I noted you listed in your query. It’s because of IBS, irritable bowel syndrome. I cannot tolerate gluten. And I just wanted to make sure that you knew that gluten can cause significant physical issues for people without celiac disease.
It’s enough of an issue that as much as I miss all of the wonderful things with gluten, I will not eat it because of how awful the symptoms can be in my gut when I do eat gluten. The issues can last as much as 5 days when it’s really bad.”
The statements above are just a few out of the several people struggling with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Thus, despite how a gluten-free diet may sound easy, it is hard to avoid, most especially since most common foods being sold in the market contains gluten.
How to check if you need to go gluten-free?
Another difficult part is not knowing whether you are a gluten-sensitive person or not.
According to Rebecca Pytell, “You need to be screened and tested for celiac disease BEFORE going gluten-free. Via Serologic Blood Tests (most common), small intestinal biopsy, or genetic testing.”
RDN Tayler Silfverduk further explains:
“The first step is to get screened for celiac disease with a simple blood test that measures antibodies associated with celiac. The next step is to get an endoscopy/biopsy to see if you have damage to your villi that are consistent with celiac. Sometimes a genetic test is used to further validate a diagnosis. If your celiac testing comes back negative, the next step is to work with a registered dietitian on an elimination diet to find your food triggers (gluten would be included). It’s important to rule out celiac before eliminating gluten from your diet because you must be eating gluten for accurate celiac test results.”
You definitely need to be tested first if you are suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance because it can be sometimes misdiagnosed, similar to Jill Johnson’s situation. Unfortunately, according to Harland Adkins, there are no specific labs or biomarkers to formally diagnose gluten tolerance or NCGS. It can only be subjectively diagnosed by your self-reported information. The process of diagnosis usually involves:
- Ruling out a wheat allergy and Celiac disease, which may include blood and/or skin prick tests as well as an upper endoscopy procedure if needed (for Celiac only).
- Next, you follow an elimination diet or “gluten challenge” that removes gluten from your diet for a period of time. The healthcare provider assesses symptoms and then re-introduces gluten to monitor your reaction.
- If a provider can make a clear correlation between gluten and your symptoms, then they can diagnose you with gluten intolerance or NCGS.
Environmental Impacts of Gluten-free industry
As demands for gluten-free products are increasing, the supply for the demands is undeniably on the bridge of decreasing. They also pose grave tolls upon the environment.
Resource-intensive production of gluten-free foods
Due to soil erosion and other natural and manmade calamities, the production of gluten-free grains is having a hard time producing rapidly.
RDN Harland Arkins says, in connection with the increasing demands, the prices of the products will most likely lead to higher prices – which distorts the goal of sustainable development. Why is this so? Most products available in all markets contain gluten, which is inevitable to purchase. Hence, demands for gluten-free grains are not easy to progress as money is not the only foe to defeat but erosions and pests as well which keeps agriculture flourish.
Approximately 20% of growth rate per year was recorded in the worldwide market regarding demands on gluten-free products. As mentioned, the higher the demand, the higher the prices. Not just that, but also, the financial support needed to continuously produce gluten-free grains.
Disposable containers to avoid contamination
Single-use plastic packaging is also paramount. Tayler Silfverduk says, “For celiac, cross-contact avoidance (avoiding gluten from touching your gluten-free food) is important. Often this involves using disposable products which can be harmful to the environment. I always tell my clients, do what they can and also remember, their health and safety come first.”
Dangers of Gluten-free products
Going gluten-free is not risk-free. If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity, then don’t even try to skip it because this diet also poses a lot of dangers:
While there are definitely unhealthy foods that contain gluten, there are also healthy foods that give your body the nutrients it needs to function properly. Similar to the effects of lack of fiber, going gluten-free without a legitimate cause can result in vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.
Harland Arkins states the following risks:
- Lack of fiber
- Increased type 2 diabetes risk
- Lack of essential vitamins and nutrients
- Weight gain
Brandi Muilenberg cautions that gluten-free products that are meant to replace processed gluten-filled products are just as bad for you as their counterpart minus the gluten. They are often full of other grains like corn or rice and typically have added sugars as well. Processed food is processed food no matter what the label reads.
With the lack of supply to support the demands, a higher price will be at the frontlines for products promoting ‘gluten-free’.
Always learn to investigate products before purchasing. The price may not cause danger to your health, but it definitely will cause danger to your pockets (yikes!).
Dangers would include confusing ingredients as non-gluten, but in fact, they are. This is why, consumers, especially those who avoid gluten, should always check the labels and study the ingredients before purchasing and consuming. There could be ingredients that would lure you into buying as it claims it is gluten-free.
Take, for example, soy sauce – usually made from soybeans that do not contain gluten BUT often have other additives which contain gluten. Some companies add other alternative binding agents that aren’t in fact gluten-free (ex: carrageenan).
So it is important to know what works best for you and know your body better. Also, do not undergo a gluten-free diet when you have no medical basis at all.
Don’t just buy something, just because it is gluten-free!
Legitimate Gluten-free products
It is better to be meticulous when it comes to your health. As celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can bring so much risk, we asked several experts about which foods to get when skipping gluten:
Unprocessed whole foods:
Lisa Richards: “Unfortunately, some individuals who follow a gluten-free diet rely on processed convenience foods that are marketed as being gluten-free. These food types are typically easily accessible processed convenience foods which are heavily relied upon in today’s standard American diet, even those foods that claim to be *healthy*.
By replacing these with unprocessed whole foods, those with chronic inflammation and gluten sensitivity can better mitigate their symptoms and reduce the likelihood of flare-ups.
Replace these foods with whole fruit, gluten-free and unprocessed snacks, and foods rich in healthy fats like nuts and seeds.”
Nutritionist Niyla Carson: “The best examples of gluten-free products include brown rice, tapioca, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. If you’re unsure whether a product is gluten-free or not, it’s important to check the label thoroughly.”
Processed Gluten-free Products
- Bob’s Red Mill
- Food for Life (bread)
- Jovial (pasta)
- Simple Meal
- Enjoy Life
- Gluten Free Chocolate Chex
- Artisan Baker 10 Grains and Seeds
- Artisan Baker Multigrain Bread
- Artisan Baker White
- Caserecce Pasta
- Choco Hazelnut Bars
- Ciabatta Rolls
- Gluten-Free bread with Ancient Grains
- Simple Kneads Sourdough Bread (according to Marie Ruggles, M.S., R.D., C.N., C.D.E., creator of The Whole Foods Quick Start Guide with Tracker)
Florida Crystals offers an array of baking sugars including raw organic cane, brown, powdered, and turbinado. This product is the perfect pantry staple and can serve as a key ingredient for a variety of dishes both sweet and savory.
In addition, Florida Crystal’s corporate chef has created a recipe catalog catering to many dietary restrictions.
Checking the Legitimacy of such products
Hossain also included some tips on how to spot legitimate gluten-free products:
- Double check the ingredients. Read the labels to ensure no cross-contamination.
- Check with your physician to avoid any adverse reactions to gluten-free products you’ve never consumed before and potentially harmful grocery shopping mistakes.
- For those with celiac disease you should always check labels since some celiac medications have traces of gluten in them.
- Make sure the company’s GF ingredients are listed on the front of their labels. If they’re mixed in or hidden elsewhere, you’ll need to search for them on other information provided.
- Check if there is a seal of approval from a gluten-free advocacy group like GFCO (Global GF Certification Organization) or North America’s only FDA-recognized certification program, CSA (The Celiac Support Association).
- Check if it’s made in a dedicated facility where nothing else but gluten-free products are made.
- Search for reviews on your favorite search engine or social network and ask questions on forums such as celiac.com. Ask people with first hand knowledge about the brand you are planning to purchase from.
Is going gluten-free worth it?
The question remains: is it worth it to go gluten-free? The straight answer is it depends. The effects of gluten really depend on the individual. Unless you have a condition that makes gluten harmful to your body, don’t do it.
For people with celiac disease, the gluten-free diet is highly necessary as it will help reduce irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation, and other causes of celiac disease.
However, we should also be responsible and prioritize our health more than ever.
If you are not gluten-sensitive, the effect of skipping gluten would otherwise bring many concerning issues as you would lack intake of fiber, vitamins, and other minerals that the body needs to function correctly.
Above all, you should strive to eat a healthy, balanced diet. You should have a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, and fruits. Going zero waste includes being intentional with your eating habits. Don’t waste your time and money on something that could risk your body.
Listen to what your body needs, not what you want. That is the key to reducing food waste and lessening your impact on the environment.