Do I Need to Avoid Gluten?

July 4, 2020

     My blog posts tend to be inspired by questions I get from clients or themes that commonly occur in my practice. The gluten question was one that came up more than once in this past week. Diet culture has done a really great job of making us afraid of lots of different foods or their components, including gluten. I’ll never forget a Jimmy Kimmel skit I watched years ago where he went out on the streets asking people what gluten is. Not one person could give an accurate answer (I've linked to the video below. The video is purely for entertainment, and in no way, shape, or form am I agreeing with the host's comments about some of the guests they interview). Why are we so afraid of something when we don’t even know what it really is? Let’s clear up the confusion.

     Defining gluten is important to this conversation. Gluten is a protein, made up of two smaller proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. It has functional properties in grain products; gluten makes bread elastic in that chewy sourdough you love and helps grains stay together (ever had gluten free bread that just falls apart?). Ever had seitan? How can this vegan protein source be so high in protein if it’s made out of wheat!? It’s made of wheat gluten, which is the protein.

     When it comes to going gluten free, I’ve heard it all. “I lost so much weight!” “I feel so much better!” “It’s just healthier!” Let’s dig deep into these statements:

1. “I lost so much weight!” I can almost guarantee you that the reason weight loss occurred is NOT because you have eliminated gluten. Think about all the products that have gluten in them that you’ve suddenly eliminated. Sugary cereal, pretzels, hamburger buns, birthday cake, cookies, cereal bars, and so forth. Weight loss is a complex process but at the end of the day, calorie deficit is what causes weight loss. I’m sure you cut out significant calories by going gluten free.

2. “It’s just healthier!” While going gluten free can certainly help you cut down on some of the junk food mentioned above, gluten free isn’t automatically healthier. Food companies quickly caught on to the gluten free food trend and developed countless products geared toward the trend. You can find gluten free cake mix, brownie mix, cookies, crackers, pasta, you name it! Gluten free does NOT mean carbohydrate free or sugar free (not that carbs or sugar need to be avoided, but that's a separate blog post). In fact, I’d argue that many people who go gluten free just because they deem it “healthier” may end up eating MORE carbs and sugar, because they have the idea in their head that their gluten free treat is “healthy.”

3. “I feel so much better!” Okay, this is a claim I actually can get on board with. There is such a thing as non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, and it is different from Celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the consumption of the gluten protein triggers an immune response that physically damages the lining of the intestine. Celiac diseases affects about 1% of the population. Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity is exactly what it sounds like, a sensitivity to gluten despite testing negative for Celiac. Upon eating gluten, sufferers will have symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea, but there is no autoimmune response or physical damage to the intestine. This condition is more prevalent than Celiac.

     What’s the bottom line? If you can eat a slice of cake and have no symptoms (whether gastrointestinal, headache or migraine, or other symptoms), enjoy yourself and don’t worry about whether you should eliminate gluten or not. If you think you have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, I encourage you to work with an RD! You may have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and and are reacting to something called FODMAPs in the wheat product, not the gluten itself. The goal of nutrition counseling is always to find the least restrictive diet that you can tolerate so that foods are not unnecessarily eliminated. If you've been avoiding gluten just because its "healthier," please go enjoy a cookie!

Jimmy Kimmel - What is Gluten?