One Simple Change: Consider Going Wheat/Gluten/Grain-Free

Winnie Abramson, ND

By Winnie Abramson, ND

I’ve lost count at this point, but I believe this is the 37th post I’ve written for One Simple Change. I’m also moving along with my One Simple Change manuscript…my deadline’s closing in fast!

Today I’m going to talk about the potential issues with eating wheat, gluten, and grains as a group. I hope that by doing so, you can make an informed decision about whether these are healthy foods for you, or if you might be better off without them. Before I go further, I want you to know that I could probably write thousands of words on this topic, but since this is One Simple Change, I am going to attempt to keep things as simple as possible.

Let’s start with a discussion of wheat since you most probably eat lots of it. Many people (at least in America) eat wheat at just about every meal and snack. This isn’t hard to do if you have cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta or pizza and/or additional bread at dinner, and crackers, cookies, or other wheat-based treats in between…wheat is everywhere! Even if you make a concerted effort to eat a healthy, diversified diet, you probably still eat some wheat.

We’ve been led to believe that as long as we’re avoiding it in its refined form most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with eating lots of wheat, but I beg to differ. I think there are some issues with wheat, and that most people are eating far too much of it.

I cut back on the wheat in my diet a long time ago: I stopped eating it altogether for a year when I was healing from food sensitivities in my early twenties. That was twenty years ago.

I don’t have any symptoms of food sensitivity and I am in very good health these days but I continue to be wary of wheat because of the reasons described in this piece by Dr. Mark Hyman (I haven’t read the book Wheat Belly, but I believe the premise is similar…if you’ve read it, please let me know what you think). Mostly I just feel that I can get higher quality carbohydrates and far more vitamins and minerals from other foods like fruits and starchy vegetables.

Now let’s talk about gluten: what is it? What’s celiac disease? And is there any reason to avoid gluten if you don’t have celiac disease?

Gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat (and its “ancestors” spelt and kamut), barley, and rye. It’s also found, though to a lesser extent, in oats. Gluten is what gives breads made from wheat their structure…their unmistakable “doughy-ness”. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by a complete intolerance to gluten.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone with celiac disease. Nowadays, however, I know lots of people who have it…why the change? Well, for one thing, it was clearly under diagnosed for a long time. I’ve spoken to several friends with long standing health issues who realized they had celiac disease as adults, went gluten free, and who no longer suffer with various symptoms like they once did. Something else that’s going on (which is referred to in the Hyman article): the wheat in our food supply has changed. It’s higher in gluten and causes reactions in a far greater percentage of people than used to be the case.

Like many other autoimmune conditions, celiac disease/gluten intolerance can either be genetically or environmentally acquired; sometimes people develop it due to chronic stress or acute trauma in their lives, while others may end up with it due to an already compromised digestive system (possibly as a result of medication overuse which destroys the normal gut flora). It’s also possible that feeding grains to infants before their digestive systems are ready to handle them may set the stage for gluten intolerance down the road.

If you have celiac disease and you eat gluten, your body will attack it. This causes inflammation that damages the lining of your small intestine. Continuing to eat gluten will damage your small intestine further, so that it can no longer absorb nutrients the way it is supposed to; this will weaken your immune system and may cause you to become sick in a variety of ways. Early symptoms of celiac disease usually include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation, and steatorrhea (an abnormal amount of fat in one’s stools). If you have any of these symptoms, you should get tested for celiac disease (but keep in mind I have a dear friend whose main symptom was migraine headaches). Speak to your doctor about getting tested before you go on a gf diet on your own; once you are on a gf diet, celiac disease can be hard to officially diagnose.

Celiac disease is a serious medical concern and the only cure is strict gluten avoidance; if you have celiac disease and you go on a permanent gluten-free diet, your intestines can heal and you can get healthy again.

It can be hard to avoid gluten if you eat any processed foods at all, and also when eating away from home. But it’s necessary to be vigilant; avoiding hidden sources of gluten is particularly important if you have celiac disease since ingesting even a very tiny amount can make you very sick. Be aware that gluten lurks in many places you would not expect; also know that some medications, vitamins, and herbal supplements use gluten as a binding agent, and that lipsticks and even postage stamps may contain gluten, as well.

Now here’s where things might get a little confusing. It is estimated that approximately 1% of the population has celiac disease (and is completely intolerant to gluten), but a far greater percentage of people is said to be sensitive to gluten. People who are sensitive to gluten may also have digestive symptoms (like gas, bloating, and constipation), but they will likely be less severe. Gluten sensitivity can cause many non-digestive health problems, as well: like acne, joint pains, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. These are the types of symptoms you could potentially live with for a long time without having any idea of the cause; it would probably only be after you stopped eating gluten and they went away that you’d make the connection. People with gluten sensitivity won’t test positive for celiac disease but they will respond positively to a gluten-free diet.

Please note that just because you are experiencing a health issue does not mean you are definitely sensitive to gluten. You might be sensitive to wheat but not all foods with gluten, or you might be sensitive to something entirely different in your diet… like dairy…or soy…or anything else that you consume on a very regular basis. Or maybe your problem doesn’t stem from food sensitivities at all. I am mentioning this because I see a lot of people these days who apparently think going gluten-free is a cure all for everything (including being overweight). This is not necessarily the case.

I’m not saying going gluten-free isn’t valuable for those who have a gluten sensitivity… it may be! But going gluten-free isn’t the answer to every single health problem. Going gluten free is not going to help you if you don’t have a problem with gluten.

If you think you might be sensitive to wheat, then remove all foods that contain it from your diet for at least two weeks and see how you do. Sometimes you won’t realize how bad you were feeling until you start to feel well. If avoiding all wheat doesn’t help, then I would try going gluten-free. If that doesn’t cut it, then I would try going completely grain-free. The thought of eating no grains at all used to make me really uncomfortable, but I have to say it’s starting to make more sense. Grains weren’t part of the human diet until approximately 10,000 years ago; evolutionarily speaking, this is pretty recent. So it is entirely possible we’re just not meant to eat them…maybe I will go Paleo at some point!

If you do find that you seem to be sensitive to wheat, gluten, or grains, be careful about eating too many treats just because they happen to be wheat, gluten, or even grain-free (though grain free sweets will probably be the least problematic of the three). Eating too many sugary carbohydrates- whether they contain wheat, gluten, grains, or not- is not good for anyone. Foods high in carbohydrates raise your blood sugar and insulin levels, putting you at risk for a number of chronic health problems. If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, then gluten-free baked goods won’t wreak havoc on your digestion the way gluten-containing foods would, but I still think you’ll be far better off if you focus primarily on eating foods that are naturally gluten-free (like protein foods, dairy products, fruits, non-starchy and starchy vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds, etc.).

Now what if you are in very good health with no signs of sensitivity to wheat, gluten, or grains…can you eat all of these foods that you want? And what about if you tried avoiding wheat, gluten, or grains, but it made absolutely no difference to your health…what then?

My feeling is that if you fall into one of the above camps and you don’t buy into the theory that all grains are bad for everyone (since they weren’t part of the diet of our paleolithic ancestors), there’s really no reason to practice complete grain avoidance. That said, I do believe it’s wise to eat a variety of grains if you eat them: it’s not good for anyone to only eat wheat.

I do eat some wheat. I also eat oats, rice, quinoa, millet, and other (mostly non-gluten) grains…and that’s why you’ll find recipes on this blog that feature these ingredients. They do have some healthful properties and I enjoy them. But my diet is primarily made up of foods that are naturally wheat/gluten/grain-free (to reiterate: this means vegetables, fruits, animal and plant protein foods, legumes, nuts/seeds, and dairy products).

If you want to eat less wheat and/or other grains (but you are afraid to), try cutting back and see what happens. I found that once I didn’t eat tons of these anymore, they kind of lost their appeal. I do eat pasta every now and then but what I’m really after when I eat it is the sauce. It’s not really about the pasta for me anymore…the pasta is just “meh”…I could take it or leave it.

If you decide you want to continue to eat grains, keep in mind that they do contain a number of problematic components (otherwise known as “anti-nutrients”): lectins, phytic acid, and enzyme inhibitors among them. For this reason, grains- and particularly those with gluten- are most healthful when they are prepared after a long soaking/fermentation period. The soaking of the grain, when done properly in an acid medium, neutralizes these naturally problematic parts, making the grains easier to digest, and giving our bodies greater access to the nutrients within. Before the advent of modern culture, people understood that grains required a long preparation time. This is exemplified in authentic ethnic recipes from around the world, including the sourdough breads made famous by our American pioneer ancestors. The books Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats and Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats are good resources for learning about this (but please note that properly prepared grains may still cause health issues if you are grain sensitive).

So what do you think of this info? New to you? Old hat? Are you going to experiment with going wheat, gluten or grain free? Please let me know…I’d love to hear if One Simple Change is inspiring you to change your life in some way.

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