Gluten-free options are everywhere these days.
Some are healthy. Some are most definitely not.
But gluten-free living is not just a fad. It’s here to stay.
Gluten is a hot topic these days and for good reason. It is estimated that three million Americans have celiac disease, of which 95 percent is undiagnosed! Celiac is an autoimmune condition that damages the small intestine and inhibits the absorption of nutrients. Another 18 million may have a newly recognized disorder called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. In both conditions, symptoms range from stomach pain, gas, bloating, diahrrea, and constipation to non-digestive ailments such as skin rash, brain fog, thyroid imbalance, depression, and neuropothy. Reactions to gluten are very individual and can be minimal to severe. The only known treatment is a gluten-free diet, with no wheat, barely, rye, or contaminated oats. (Read my article, Why is Gluten Sensitivity on the Rise?)
I am gluten sensitive.
Maybe you are too.
I can hear you saying…
“Yeah, Tracy, I went on a gluten-free diet for a while and didn’t feel any better. It didn’t work for me.”
Or maybe you’ve stuck with the diet and mostly feel better.
Why weren’t you completely successful?
There could be a myriad of reasons, one being that you might need a more healing diet like Paleo, SCD, or GAPS to improve your health. (Read my article, My Gut is Leaking!) These regimens remove sugar, grains, and inflammatory foods that promote intestinal permeability and disrupt the delicate gut microbiome. (Learn more at SCD Lifestyle.) In the last two years, I’ve seen more improvement in my health on the GAPS diet, than I did previously on a gluten-free only diet.
But first I want to explore the possibility that you might have participated in an “unhealthy” gluten-free diet, possibly without even realizing it! Whether because of slick marketing or lack of knowledge, I believe many people who attempt gluten-free living fall prey to three common mistakes.
1. Consuming too much gluten-free processed food
The Standard American Diet (SAD) contains food-like products that are high in refined sugar, starch, chemical additives, and GMO ingredients. By the presence of a label, many gluten-free products claim to be healthy. The fact that they are free of gluten is good. But they still contain the very ingredients that have the potential to make us sick and fat. Instead of wheat, they substitute flours such as potato, corn, and tapioca, which are high starch foods. They also contain high amounts of sugar and chemical additives! Overconsumption of these gluten-free foods can still lead to weight gain, diabetes, inflammation, and heart disease.
Don’t be fooled by the label. Just because it’s says it’s gluten free, does not mean it’s healthy! A “gluten-free” sugar-laden, high-starch, refined-flour blueberry muffin is still a sugar-laden, high-starch, refined-flour blueberry muffin. Coupled with a sweetened latte or orange juice for breakfast, you’ll send your insulin levels through the roof! Pre-diabetes is not far behind.
Secondly, processed gluten-free products also include an abundance of genetically modified organisms. If the product is not organic, then you are eating GMO ingredients. Look at the majority of labels on gluten-free products. They contain corn, sugar, soy, canola, and cottonseed oil. 90 percent of these foods are GMO! Read why genetically engineered products may be harming your health.
Food manufacturers seized the opportunity to develop gluten-free products to fill a niche market. But these products are still processed! Processed food is not real food. One of my favorite gluten-free speakers is Dr. Tom O’Bryan. He has the best quote about unhealthy gluten-free diets.
“A gluten-free diet is not bad for you, a BAD gluten-free diet is bad for you.”
How to avoid this mistake:
Choose real whole foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as pasture-raised meats, wild fish, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruits, gluten-free grains, and herbs. The goal is to increase the amount of whole foods in your diet, and decrease the amount of processed food. Yes, this means you have to spend more time in the kitchen preparing and cooking your food. (The time is worth it!) The occasional gluten-free treat is not detrimental to your health, especially when enjoyed in social situations with friends. But to avoid this mistake, make it your aim to consume real whole foods most of the time.
2. Eating a 95% gluten-free diet
For some people, eating mostly gluten-free is fine. But for people who have the following conditions, eating 95 percent gluten-free is truly not good enough.
- auto-immune disorder, such as celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, or psoriasis
- neurological disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, or ADHD
- unexplained digestive condition
- obvious reaction to gluten when you eat it
People with these particular profiles are more at risk for gluten sensitivity. Research is showing a correlation between auto-immune conditions and gluten consumption. Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, is a valid example. Because gluten proteins contain a similar molecular structure to thyroid tissue, the destruction can be even more devastating. When a hypothyroid patient consumes gluten, then the body not only attacks the gluten invader, but also attacks its own thyroid.
Gluten is also a problem for other populations, such as those with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism. When placed on a gluten free/casein (milk protein) free diet, autistic children often show significant signs of improvement.
Here’s why this discussion is important. For people with gluten sensitivity, inflammation caused by a gluten exposure can last up to six months! Gluten not only begins the fire of inflammation, but it continues the fire long after you put down that wheat bagel. Even if you don’t have a major auto-immune or neurological condition, you may still have inflammation from gluten consumption, especially if you have any unexplained digestive condition.
Sneaking a little bit of gluten here and there can wreak havoc. 95 or even 99 percent is just not good enough. I was a “95 percenter” my first year of being gluten free. It wasn’t until I made a full commitment to being 100 percent gluten free that I saw more improvements in my health.
How to avoid this mistake:
Be diligent about avoiding gluten. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to be perfect, but don’t knowingly expose yourself. At restaurants, always ask for ingredients before you order. At social events, take an extra gluten-free plate to share or eat before you go. At your mom’s house, politely decline the wheat coffee cake with a “thank you” and tell her to read this post. As with the first common mistake, focus on foods that are naturally gluten free.
For more inspiration to be 100 percent gluten free, watch this amazing video about how Terry Wahls overcame multiple sclerosis with a gluten-free, grain-free, real food diet.
3. Not checking for hidden sources of gluten
Maybe you avoid gluten-free processed foods most of the time. Maybe you try to eat gluten free 100 percent of the time. Very good! But have you thought about hidden sources of gluten?
Gluten can appear anywhere – in prescription drugs, in soy sauce, in new-fangled ingredients with hard-to-pronounce scientific names, in French fries, in shampoo, and in communion wafers.
For the longest time, I didn’t even contemplate gluten being a part of the communion service at my church! And just two months ago, I discovered that gluten was in my generic thyroid medication under the name, maltodextrin! I switched to the brand name right away.
How to avoid this mistake:
This mistake is the most difficult to overcome. But with research and persistence, it can be done! The best thing to do is ask questions. Ask about everything you put in and on your body. Email manufacturers of your favorite products and call the pharmaceutical company that formulates your medications. Develop relationships in your local community by getting to know your pharmacist and the manager at your favorite restaurant. Make friends with the owner of your local health food store. Tell them about your gluten sensitivity and ask them to be an advocate for your health.
The more you know about where gluten hides and how to avoid it, the more confident you will be about your health. Here are online resources to learn more about gluten in hidden forms:
- List of hidden sources of gluten in foods (from MindBodyGreen.com)
- List of other names for gluten (from Celiac.com)
- List of gluten-free medications (from GlutenFreeDrugs.com)
How did you rate yourself on these three gluten-free mistakes?
How can you improve? I encourage you to make the effort. Not so you can say, “I live a perfect gluten-free lifestyle!” But so you can be healthier and feel better.
For me, that’s what being gluten free is all about.