With all of the conflicting information circulating around the internet, it is easy to be uncertain about the value of gluten-free diets and and you may be wondering if adopting a gluten-free diet would even benefit you. The reality is that much of the controversy is related competing financial interests (on both sides of the debate), outlandish claims, and big egos, more so than facts and real-world results. Although I do adhere to a gluten-free diet myself, it is not my intent to push that approach on anyone, or to claim that it will cure a multitude of chronic ailments on its own. Instead, I simply want to lay out the facts and help people make an informed decision for themselves.
The fact is that many people who have been long-time sufferers of chronic ailments (arthritis, tendinitis, migraines, bloating, eczema, fatigue, and other inflammatory conditions) quickly report drastic improvements simply by going on a gluten-free diet, when other approaches, often those endorsed by their healthcare providers, failed. So why is there controversy regarding the health benefits of a gluten-free diet? I see four main reasons:
1. The major producers of wheat, barley, and rye crops and products want to protect their bottom line, so they will do whatever they can to market the “benefits” of a diet high in those particular grains.
2. On the other hand, the “gluten-free” label has been slapped onto many processed junk foods and candies, implying that they are somehow healthy choices, when in reality they are just empty calories. These misleading messages tend to undermine the potential benefits of a gluten-free diet and are likely to cause people to dismiss the whole gluten-free trend all together.
3. The knowledge of nutrition in the U.S. healthcare system is atrocious. The requirements for nutrition education for the average medical doctor are minimal, and they are much more likely to prescribe a drug in an attempt to treat symptoms than they are to take the time to consult with their patients on proper nutrition which will lead to better health outcomes in the long run.
3. Lastly, nobody likes to be wrong, and some health authorities simply don’t want to change their tune if they have been promoting a high-grain (and subsequently high-gluten) diet for many years.
All of that being said, I want people to take responsibility for their own health, not to blame the healthcare system or food corporations. The majority of chronic illnesses in the U.S. are self-inflicted. Type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, heart disease, and early cognitive decline are examples of preventable diseases that would be essentially eradicated if the population had access to, and consumed a better diet,in addition to being reasonably physically active. I am not saying that gluten is the cause of all these diseases on its own, far from it. What I am saying though, is that removing gluten is an essential step for millions of people, far more than the number of people officially diagnosed with celiac disease, to return to optimal health. It is frustrating to see so many people struggle with chronic ailments (including the inability to lose body fat and heal injuries) that could be greatly improved simply by taking gluten out of the diet.
What I’ll do now is go over some of the most common misconceptions regarding the purpose and effects of adhering to a gluten-free diet, which will hopefully clear the air on this topic.
Myth #1: A Gluten-free diet is restrictive
Most of the food on the planet does not contain gluten. If you feel like a gluten-free diet is restrictive, then you have not taken the time to explore the thousands of alternatives available. The foods you need have been there all along, i.e. vegetables, meat, fruit, rice, starches, legumes, nuts, basically everything that is real, whole food. Nowadays, you can even find gluten-free alternatives to foods that have traditionally been made with wheat, like pizza, beer, cookies and bagels, because of the increased demand for gluten-free foods. That being said, many of these new gluten-free products are still basically high-sugar junk foods, and while you can indulge in them during a cheat meal, they shouldn’t comprise a significant portion of your diet.
Myth #2: A Gluten-free diet is for fat loss
Can you lose body fat on a gluten-free diet? Sure, but if all you do is remove gluten, you are only addressing one small part of the diet. The primary goal of a gluten-free diet is to reduce inflammation and gut irritation, which will in turn improve many other secondary ailments. It is important to understand that you can still have a very poor diet, even if it is gluten-free. Consuming excessive sugar, carbohydrates, and junk food and drink (candy, fries, soda, juice) will still be detrimental, regardless if they are gluten-free. A gluten-free diet can still be fattening as there are plenty of high-carb junk foods and desserts that usually do not contain gluten (candy, soda, chips, ice cream)
That being said, I would definitely recommend maintaining a gluten-free diet if fat-loss is the goal. Many will experience a significant decrease in bloating and constipation, and an increase in physical energy and mental focus, and lessened joint pain, all primarily due to a decrease in systemic inflammation, which will make adhering to a proper diet and training regimen much easier.
Myth #3: Gluten-free diets are low-carbohydrate diets
People will often confuse a gluten-free diet with a low-carb diet because bread and pasta made from wheat, which are the primary sources of carbs for many Americans, are not allowed. The reality is that a gluten-free diet has nothing to do with the macronutrient breakdown of a diet. A gluten-free diet can range from being high-carb to a very low-carb ketogenic diet. A gluten-free diet is simply a means to avoid a protein that triggers negative immune and inflammatory reactions in a significant percentage of the population.
Myth #4: It’s hard to gain muscle mass eating gluten-free
If you are worried that you will not fit in enough calories without wheat bread and pasta don’t worry! I have had great success being able to add muscle mass using rice, rice pasta/noodles, gluten-free pancakes topped with bananas and maple syrup, plantains, gluten-free oats, sweet potatoes, figs, dates, and raisins, as my carbohydrate staples,making it easy to easily increase my caloric intake when needed. In fact, because these foods are more easily digested for me and do not result in any digestive upset or excessive inflammatory response, I feel better, am able to train harder, and I gain more muscle mass, all the while staying leaner than I had been eating a diet heavy in wheat flour.
Myth #5: It’s hard to get enough fiber eating gluten-free
There are plenty of gluten-free sources of fiber available that also pack a ton of nutrients such as legumes, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower, berries, quinoa, figs, certified gluten-free oats, and avocados, just to name a few. Getting your fiber from a wide variety of foods will also provide you with a broad spectrum of phytonutrients. Most bread is not really a great source of fiber anyways, providing only about 2-6g of fiber per slice, and on top of that, many products labeled as whole-wheat or whole grain contain more refined flour than anything else, which doesn’t add a significant amount of fiber. The bottom line is that there are plenty of gluten-free options if you need to increase your fiber intake.
Myth #6: You can assess the effectiveness of a gluten-free diet after one day
One day without having gluten will probably not be long enough for you to notice improvement. Neither will one week in which you cut back on gluten, but still have a small amount every day. One STRICT week without gluten should be long enough to give yourself a fair assessment. Once the week is up, if you are already starting to feel better or your symptoms have started to subside, keep it up! The amount of effort it takes to seek out alternatives is well worth the health benefits.
On the other hand, if you have not noticed a significant difference after your strict gluten-free week, try reintroducing gluten after the seventh day. If you notice symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, or watery eyes, within a few minutes to a few hours of consuming the gluten, or joint pain the day after, then you can be fairly certain that gluten has something to do with your triggering your symptoms. It may not be the only factor (other common food triggers are dairy, soy, and corn, MSG, and certain food preservatives), but removing it will be a step in the right direction.
If you are one of the lucky ones that is completely unaffected after reintroducing gluten, then it is probably okay to have it in the diet every now and then. Be aware however, that some symptoms related to gluten sensitivity and other food sensitivities do not manifest until 2-3 days after the initial exposure, especially when it comes to issues such as eczema or acne. Additionally, there is a lot of evidence correlating gluten consumption with cognitive decline, which not necessarily be apparent until years later.
Myth #7: You should consult your doctor before going gluten-free
It’s ridiculous to me when I read things like “Consult your doctor before going on a gluten-free diet.” First of all, the vast majority of U.S. primary care doctors don’t even advise their patients on nutrition in the first place. Did you consult them before eating your current diet? Secondly, what exactly is the risk of not eating gluten? Gluten-containing foods such as wheat do not provide any essential nutrients that cannot be obtained elsewhere, so you are certainly not at risk of any nutritional deficiencies. In fact, if you remove gluten-containing foods, you will be more likely to expand your dietary menu, providing yourself with a wider spectrum of nutrients. There are many potential health benefits to going gluten-free, and no negative side effects from a lack of gluten. Sounds like it’s worth a shot to me if you are seeking to improve your current level of health and fitness!
Understand that while a gluten-free diet can provide many potential benefits, not all gluten-free diets are created equal. If you feel like your health or physique has room for improvement, give it an honest try and see for yourself if works for you!