by Dr. Will Cole
These days, it seems like every other person is going gluten-free, for reasons ranging from autoimmune and inflammation problems (like celiac disease) to a desire to eat more clean, natural foods less adulterated by industrial agriculture. This trend shows no signs of slowing – the gluten-free industry is only expected to grow, achieving an astonishing $4.89 billion dollars by 2021, with a Monash University survey finding that 78 percent of people who purchase gluten-free products say they do so for some sort of health reason.
Talking with patients from around the world in my functional medicine practice, I find that most have dabbled with a little “gluten-free,” and this is something I encourage, since research is indeed pointing to the fact that gluten is a likely trigger for both inflammation and autoimmune problems.
Yet, while 2.7 million Americans (and millions more worldwide) either avoid gluten or know someone who does, misconceptions and misapplication of a gluten-free diet remain common. Don’t fall prey to these top mistakes I see people make when they decide to go gluten-free:
1. They quit too soon.
A few weeks or a mere month of going gluten-free won’t, for many people, make enough of a difference. For example, the inflammatory effects of gluten were shown to last up to six months in people with autoimmune thyroid problems, and I have found that gut problems like leaky gut syndrome can often take over a year to fully heal after gluten is removed from the diet. In other words, a chronic health problem that has taken years to become what it is today isn’t going to go away in three weeks. Give your gluten-free diet more time to work.
2. They don’t get complete gluten-sensitivity labs.
If you are thinking about making the effort to go gluten-free (and in this wheat-happy culture, it is an effort), you will be more motivated if you know for sure it is the right move for you. Most people don’t realize that there are about 24 different properties in modern wheat that can cause sensitivity and reactions.
Chances are, your conventional doctor will test for one, with an alpha gliadin lab – the standard lab test for celiac disease. If this comes back negative, you may be inclined to celebrate the good news by going out for breadsticks, but not so fast! Alpha-gliadin is just one part of the gluten-intolerance spectrum, with gluten sensitivity on one end of the spectrum and celiac disease on the other end. A functional medicine practitioner can order much more comprehensive lab work to determine whether gluten-free will benefit you, even if you don’t have diagnosable celiac disease.
3. They go gluten-free….for the most part.
If you decide to go gluten-free, eating “a little bit” of gluten is like being “a little bit” pregnant – it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, folks. Simply cutting back won’t be effective or instructive. Normally, I suggest eliminating gluten entirely for at least 60 days before reintroducing to see if you react.
4. They eat too many gluten-free processed foods.
Just because something is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s nutritious. Pure sugar, highly processed white rice flour and even high fructose corn syrup are all gluten-free, but they certainly aren’t good for you. A healthy gluten-free diet is full of nutrient-dense and anti-inflammatory healthy fats, proteins, and organic plant-based foods.
5. They still eat cross-reactive foods.
If you’ve gone gluten-free and initially felt better but then hit a plateau, cross-reactivity may be the culprit. Labs can be done that test for foods that do not contain gluten but that the body could be reading as gluten due to similar protein molecules – a bit like a case of mistaken identity!
These cross-reactive foods can include gluten-free grains, dairy products, coffee, chocolate, and eggs (just to name a few), and depending on your individual degree of reactivity, you might have to eliminate these foods for awhile, or even for good, because your immune system has a way of remembering them.
6. They assume that a gluten-free diet will cure all of their problems.
Going gluten-free can be a piece of your health puzzle, but it’s rarely a panacea. The human body is complex, and anyone suffering from inflammation likely requires multiple avenues of healing. Other issues like histamine intolerance and FODMAP intolerance are often overshadowed by gluten’s popularity, but also need to be addressed for optimal health.
We are all different, so I suggest getting a comprehensive functional medicine evaluation. If you do find out that gluten is a problem for you, don’t allow these six mistakes to hinder your efforts to eliminate it from your diet and live a healthier life.
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