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Gluten-free diet- is it right for you?

Updated: Mar 15

I departed ways with majority of the gluten-containing foods (wheat, rye, barley, spelt) in January 2017. No, it was not an experiment that I thought of doing for a short period of time, it was a concrete step in my healing journey after having been diagnosed with Lyme disease in October 2016 and suffering from severe joint pains in my hips and knees and headaches as a consequence. I started to read a lot about what causes inflammation in the body and what can I do to reduce the inflammation levels. And one of the topics that came up amongst many health experts I read books from or podcasts I listened to, that gluten can be a trigger to inflammation amongst other inflammatory foods, such as added sugars, trans fats, processed meats, too many foods with omega-6 fatty acids, refined carbs and conventional dairy products. After going off from the mentioned gluten containing foods, my joint pains resided (it did take around 3 weeks for me to really start to notice that change).

I this article, I would like to share information on:

  • what is gluten

  • why is it not good for humans and why you might want to consider going off the gluten containing foods

  • what foods contain gluten

  • what to replace the gluten containing foods with

  • why should you be wary for 'gluten-free' labeled products

Gluten-free diet

What is gluten?

Gluten is a sticky protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and spelt. It's a family of proteins found in the seeds of grass that are soluble in alcohol. Gliadine is the gluten protein in wheat. Over the centuries wheat has been hybridised, crossbred with other grains and species to increase production levels, and sprayed with high amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Due to the hybridisation process nowadays grains have fewer nutrients, more weight‐producing carbohydrates, more gluten and more phytic acid in them.

Gluten gives baked goods their doughy elastic structure, but many foods also contain gluten for other purposes like for flavour enhancement and as a thickening agent. For your intestines gluten is like a glue blocking the normal movements of the small intestines. This can manifest in intestinal bloating, diarrhoea and other problems, even in people who are not sensitive to gluten. Your digestive system does not possess the enzymes to completely digest all the bits of this protein, therefore your stomach producing excess acids, slowing down digestion or creating acid reflux.

Why gluten is not considered good for us?

Many of us are consuming gluten on a daily basis. Just think about it- sandwiches, muffins, croissants, bagels, cereals, granola, hamburgers, hot dogs, wraps, cookies, cakes etc- they all contain gluten. Compared to other proteins in grains, gluten is difficult to digest and its presence in your digestive tract can inflame the intestinal lining, loosening the tight junctions and therefore contributing to a leaky gut syndrome. Gluten can create an underlying inflammatory process that can create collateral tissue damage in your body to all of your organs not just to your gut. Once the gut is leaky, you get systemic flow of gluten and wherever it goes, it can cause damage.

Celiac disease

You might have heard of celiac disease, which is a severe reaction to gluten and which is not very common amongst humans- around 1% of world population has celiac disease. For people with celiac disease, every time they consume gluten, their immune system triggers an attack to intestines. As it affects the villi in the intestines which are responsible for absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream, people with celiac disease experience symptoms like malnutrition. But there are more than 300+ symptoms reported from people with celiac disease, from neurological and psychiatric illnesses, stunted growth, cancer, and even death. People with celiac disease should avoid all gluten containing foods, but also be aware what other products (skincare) they use what contain gluten.

People are tested for celiac disease using the below 5 pillars (meeting 4 out of 5):

symptoms or signs linked to celiac disease:

  • Positive serological screening tests (you would need to be eating gluten for accurate results)

  • Presence of genetic markers HLA-DQ8 or HLA-DQ2 (but having these genes does not necessarily mean you definitely develop celiac disease)

  • Intestinal damage detected by endoscopy/biopsy (you would need to be eating gluten for seeing the damage gluten causes)

  • Symptom resolution by following implementation of gluten free diet

Wheat allergy

This is an allergic immune response whenever gluten containing foods are consumed. There are less people in the world diagnosed with it than with celiac disease, but nonetheless it can cause severe symptoms from hives, itching, swelling to difficulty breathing and even anaphylaxis. People with wheat allergy notice the symptoms immediately or soon after consuming gluten containing foods. People with wheat allergy should avoid gluten containing foods in their diet.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

But even if you are not celiac, you can still be gluten intolerant (also called having non-celiac gluten sensitivity), experiencing similar symptoms as with celiac disease, but body does not produce antibodies for gluten. People who have gluten sensitivity, feel better when they avoid gluten- and different people experience the symptoms at different levels of severity. There is currently no accepted test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can result in changes to the gut microbiome and increase pathogenic microbes. As our overall health is very much linked to our gut, gluten intolerance can affect almost every cell, tissue and system in your body, since the bacteria that populate our gut help control everything from nutrient absorption and hormone production to metabolic function and cognitive processes in the body.

Below are some of the most common symptoms linked to non-celiac gluten sensitivity:

  • Digestive issues, including abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, constipation or diarrhoea

  • Muscle and joint pains

  • Skin issues, such as eczema, dermatitis, skin rashes, rosacea

  • Tingling and numbness in the arms and legs

  • Frequent low energy levels and chronic fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating and trouble with memory

  • Frequent headaches

  • Mood-related issues, such as depression and anxiety

  • Reproductive problems, irregular periods and infertility

  • Nutrient deficiencies, including iron deficiency and anemia

  • Higher risk for neurological and psychiatric diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms or have been diagnosed with auto-immune diseases, like Lyme, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis etc., it's advisable to first rule out celiac disease and wheat allergy. Then try and go off from gluten all together not less than 3 weeks to see if the symptoms you are experiencing are getting any better. Of course if you have too much inflammation in the body, it's the best to go on an anti-inflammatory diet all together (where you cut out all inflammatory foods) to really support your own body's innate ability to heal. Gluten stays in your body for months after your have stopped eating it, even if you just had a bite of gluten containing food.

It's also important to know that different grains contain different forms of gluten. In this article by Gluten Free Society, they list different grains including also rice, corn and oat and the type of gluten you can find in them. If you are someone sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease it's advised to avoid grains all together to see how your symptoms will get better.

What foods contain gluten?

Unfortunately the list is long, as gluten is really added to many manufactured and packaged products. Even if oats, rice and quinoa for example don't contain gluten called gliadin, the fact that they are often packaged in the same factories where wheat is processed, makes them not completely free of gliadin. This does make a gluten-free diet challenging, but I believe, if one wants to go gluten-free, then by eliminating the below foods, you are already doing your body a great favour.

  • Wheat, all varieties (whole wheat, wheat berries, graham, bulgur, farro, farina, durum, kamut, bromated flour, spelt etc), rye, barley, triticale

  • Baked wheat flour products (bread, pasta, pizza, cookies, pastries as well as sourdough bread though healthier than normal white bread)

  • Canola oil and other vegetable oils

  • Deli meats (including bacon)- check ingredients

  • Granola- always read the ingredients label as though granola is supposed to be oat-based, many manufacturers do add wheat in them

  • Spelt bread- thought spelt is considered ancient grain and talked about as a healthier version of a bread, it does contain gluten

  • Couscous- also an ancient grain, that's unfortunately not gluten free

  • Bulgur- same as couscous, it does contain gluten

  • Protein bars- to improve the consistency of a protein bar, manufacturers often add gluten in the bars. So read your labels if you want to avoid gluten.

  • French fries- many frozen french fries are dusted with flour before they are frozen

  • Ketchup and mayonnaise- manufacturers of these products may use gluten products as thickeners, stabilisers or for flavouring. Better to make your own to be sure you avoid the possible gluten within these products.

  • Meatballs- gluten (bread crumbs) are often used to keep the meatballs together

  • Beer and vodka- you know that beer is made from barley, but if you do buy vodka, make sure it's not made from gluten-containing grains, but from potatoes, corn or grapes

  • Sausages and hot dog sausages- some sausages have added gluten in them

  • Roasted nuts- they are typically produced in the same factory facilities with gluten-containing products, so best to consume raw nuts (but good if soaked).

  • Ice cream- check thee ingredients list when you purchase ice-cream as some ice-cream do contain flour for thickening.

Gluten may also be added to other processed and packaged foods like:

  • soy sauce

  • fish sticks

  • flavoured teas

  • tomato sauces

  • bouillon cubes

  • ground spices

  • marinades

  • syrups

  • spice mixes

  • chewing gum

Products labelled as gluten-free

Even if you look at products in stores labeled 'gluten-free', you still find the below ingredients on product labels. So the fact that the product is labelled gluten-free, doesn't necessarily make it healthy. I follow this rule; if I don't recognise the ingredient on the product label, would not have it in my kitchen cupboard, I don't buy the product.

  • natural flavourings

  • whey protein concentrate

  • rice malt or rice syrup

  • dextrin, malt or maltodextrin

  • modified food starch

  • gelatinised starch

  • hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP)

  • hydrolysed plant protein (HPP)

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)

  • whey sodium caseinate

  • etc

What to use instead of wheat, rye, barley and spelt?

I do know from my own experience, it does take commitment and knowledge to go off gluten- you just need to be well-informed when you buy groceries and when you go and eat out. But if you know what gluten does do your body, it's much easier to decide to go off it. Since gluten containing grains also contain vitamins and minerals (especially B vitamins, E-vitamins, minerals like iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium), it's important to make sure you get these micronutrients from other food sources. Grains are also high in fibre, so make sure by removing gluten-containing grains, you get adequate amount of fibre in your diet.

Below I list of grains and flours that you can consume as alternatives to wheat, rye, barley and spelt. It's not a complete list as there are more options out there, but hopefully it will drift you away from the thought 'what on earth am I supposed to eat instead of these grains and foods made from these grains'?

  • almond flour

  • coconut flour

  • buckwheat flour

  • plantain flour

  • cassava flour

  • bean flours (chickpea)

  • starches (potato, tapioca)

  • buckwheat

  • quinoa

  • amaranth

Grains you want to be mindful of, as they do contain gluten, just different ones:

  • brown rice

  • wild rice

  • black rice

  • oats

  • millet

  • teff

  • sorghum

I hope the above provides you more insight into gluten. If you are experiencing digestive issues, joint issues, have auto-immune illnesses you might want to consider going off gluten and see how you feel.

If you are looking for health and nutrition counselling, don't hesitate to contact me.


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