Today, everybody knows about gluten, and millions are doing their darnedest to avoid it. Going gluten free is imperative for everyone with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by even minute amounts of gluten. However, some proponents claim that everyone should go gluten free—while critics dismiss it as just another passing fad.
So, should you go gluten free? The truth lies somewhere in between.
Celiac Disease: A Serious Autoimmune Condition
When individuals with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune systems go into overdrive, producing antibodies that attack their own tissues. The primary target is the villi, which line the small intestines and are essential for the absorption of nutrients. Gluten causes inflammation and erosion of the villi, which prevents proper absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and leads to a host of health problems.
Bloating, pain, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal complaints are the most common symptoms of untreated celiac disease, and nutritional deficiencies may result in weight loss, anemia, osteoporosis, stunted growth in children, and fertility/pregnancy problems. Celiac disease is also linked with intestinal cancer and other autoimmune diseases.
Strict avoidance of gluten allows the gut to heal and symptoms to improve, but patients must be ever vigilant, as any amount of gluten sets off this damaging autoimmune reaction.
At the other end of the spectrum are people who have no issues with bread, pasta, and other foods rich in gluten. Then there are those who haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease but experience unpleasant symptoms when they eat wheat and other grains, and feel much better when they avoid them.
Gluten Sensitivity/Intolerance Is Real
It’s possible that they have undiagnosed celiac disease. After all, most of the estimated 1–2 percent of the population afflicted with celiac disease have not been diagnosed. It could also be a wheat allergy. Wheat is one of the more common food allergies, and dozens of potential allergens have been identified in this grain.
There is also increasing recognition of non-celiac gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Common symptoms, which appear after eating gluten-containing foods, include bloating, pain, and irregular bowel movements. Fatigue, brain fog, headaches, joint achiness, congestion, and skin problems are also often reported.
To be clear, this is not a gluten allergy, nor is there autoimmune destruction of the villi. In fact, gluten may not be the only trigger. Other proteins in wheat, such as amylase trypsin inhibitors, can also provoke symptoms, and imbalances in gut bacteria and leaky gut syndrome likely factor in as well.
Another potential culprit is FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), carbohydrates that are abundant in wheat, barley, and rye as well as milk and a number of fruits and vegetables. Bloating, cramping, and diarrhea often improve with a low-FODMAPs diet—which obviously excludes gluten-rich foods.
Gluten is most often consumed in bread, pasta, and flour-based snacks and desserts: high-glycemic, calorie-dense foods that can cause blood sugar swings, food cravings, weight gain, lipid abnormalities, and other aspects of metabolic syndrome. By eliminating these foods and replacing them with healthier options, you’ll feel better even if you’re not sensitive to gluten.
People with a wide range of symptoms and diagnoses—from obesity and diabetes to autoimmune diseases and irritable bowel syndrome—do quite well on a gluten-free diet. While we can’t promise that going gluten free works for everyone, why not give it a try to see how you do?