Google “gluten-free” and you get roughly 150,000,000 results.
Clearly, the topic of gluten is trending. You probably know at least one person that has cut gluten from their diet. This begs the question: Is eating gluten-free a fad? Will it pass by us eventually à la fat-free diets? And what about the choice of whether or not you should go gluten-free? Friends, that question is one we hear a lot. And we want to help you find the answer.
Without having severe gluten intolerance or celiac disease, it can be tough to know if it’s worth it, right? How do you know if you have a gluten intolerance, celiac disease, or sensitivity? Well, while there is a test that can identify whether or not you have celiac disease, the only surefire way to know if you have a sensitivity is by eliminating gluten from your diet and seeing how your body responds after gradually reintroducing it thereafter.
To start, it’s important to understand the different types of gluten sensitivities. These varying sensitivities can have different OR similar symptoms—and it’s often much more than just a bad stomachache. Here’s a deeper look at the different sensitivities so you can better identify how gluten may be impacting you:
1. Gluten is a BIG problem for you (e.g., celiac disease)
Celiac disease is on the rise. The condition, also called celiac sprue, coeliac, and gluten-sensitive enteropathy, once considered rare now affects more people than ever: 1 in 100. Many physicians believe it is a grossly undiagnosed disease, and some doctors now regularly screen anyone with severe digestive complaints for the troubling illness. The reality is that celiac is more than an uncomfortable condition—it can be life-threatening, and is characterized by autoimmune antibodies. It’s important to understand that celiac CANNOT cause anaphylaxis—a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction—unlike a wheat allergy, for example. Most people will not die from the immediate symptoms of celiac disease. However, left untreated, it can lead to several other conditions, some of which can be fatal.
● Common symptoms: Stomach pain, chronic diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, floating or foul-smelling stool, depression, fatigue, infertility, and weight loss.
● Associated symptoms & conditions: Itchy rash, peripheral neuropathy, ataxia, osteoporosis, behavioral changes, irregular menstrual cycle, infertility, Addison’s disease, fibromyalgia, autism, anxiety/depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, severe headaches/migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves disease, type 1 diabetes, pancreatic disorders, and multiple sclerosis.
● Diagnosis: To diagnose celiac disease, your doctor will administer a blood test called a Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA), and you must have gluten in your system at the time of the test—if you’re on a gluten-free diet the test may produce false-negative results. This test is 98% accurate in patients with celiac disease.
2. You don’t have celiac disease, but something is way off (e.g., gluten intolerance/sensitivity)
Many people experience symptoms like those of celiac disease, despite negative tTG-IgA test results and intestinal biopsies revealing no tissue damage. It is unclear what the underlying cause is for gluten intolerance or sensitivity, and is often diagnosed based on a patient’s response to a gluten-free diet.
● Common symptoms: Often the same as celiac, and primarily digestive distress.
● Dietary Recommendations: Having a severe gluten intolerance is becoming increasingly common, and it can be very frustrating because it’s difficult to obtain a clear diagnosis. Gluten sensitivity can manifest in the same way as celiac disease, but with greater variability in severity and duration. Your best bet may be to try an elimination diet, which you can find in many of our programs! We recommend eliminating for two months for the best results. Determining if you’re gluten-sensitive is just as important as determining if you have celiac disease because, over time, the integrity of your gut health can be compromised. Gastrointestinal health is the cornerstone of optimal health—it plays a major role in the balance of hormones, mood, cognitive function, and other aspects of overall health and well-being.
3. Gluten doesn’t make you feel too sexy
For those that don’t have celiac disease or a diagnosed intolerance, you may just not feel so hot after you eat gluten-containing foods. Low energy, less endurance, and overall “slowness” are common words used to describe these feelings. By removing gluten from your diet, many in this category see a positive change in their appearance, and many professional athletes have gone gluten-free to improve athletic performance!
● Common symptoms: Digestive distress, fatigue, energy loss, and overall blah.
● Dietary Recommendations: We recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for two months. Why? Gluten is pesky and can linger in the bloodstream for a long time. Add it back into your diet gradually over time and see how you feel.
4. Gluten ain’t no thang
You feel absolutely fine with gluten. No cramping or chronic side effects. Perhaps you have headaches, digestive issues, or some joint pain. You’ve tried going gluten-free for two months and noticed zero difference. You’re realizing maybe something else is to blame.
Our feelings? Being gluten-free is not a fad. We have worked with too many people who notice legitimate improvements by removing it from their diet. With that said, it’s important to consider a few things—when you cut out gluten, you are often cutting out a lot of unhealthy food too. You will not be able to eat most fast food, many packaged items, and other foods that simply aren’t healthy. So you have to ask yourself, was it the gluten or was it the crummy food? One way to determine the difference is to eat healthy sources of gluten as a trial: wheat berries, farro, and couscous are just a handful of naturally gluten-filled whole grains. On the flip side, going gluten-free and replacing those packaged foods with gluten-free versions may not necessarily improve your health, as they’re often laden with added sugars and fats to improve flavor. The ticket is to try removing it from your diet and trying a healthy whole foods diet (with gluten grains) to see if gluten is the cause!
SO, what do you think?
We hope this information helps guide you in making the decision of whether to go gluten-free. Ultimately, the best way to find out whether a gluten-free diet is right for you is to remove it from your diet, then gauge how your body responds upon reintroduction. We help people explore this in our 20-day nutrition program: Prescribe 20. Because going at these things alone is never easy, and rarely successful, we believe that community is the key to success. With our programs, we’re with you every step of the way, offering recipes, educational materials, and professional guidance. With this support system in place, the process of discovering how to feed YOUR body isn’t so bad. Not one bit.
Megan Morris is a certified nutritionist, Co-Founder & CEO of Prescribe Nutrition, and Founder of The Root of Health: an online digestive health resource.