Why & How to Go Gluten-Free
My Gluten Experience
Like many of us, I’ve heard of people eating gluten-free for years but dismissed it as some extreme fad diet. That all changed recently.
For the last 1 ½ years, I’ve had health issues that have challenged my ability to exercise, be social, work a full-time job, run errands, and live a normal life.
Last January, I began having severe fatigue and migraines that came out of nowhere. I stopped exercising (mostly) because it started draining me and spent Saturdays on the couch & living room floor – a very tough adjustment for me. I cancelled outings with friends because my body suddenly ran out of energy and increasingly relied on my wonderful husband for grocery runs, cooking, and errands. I stopped most extracurricular activities because I was failing to care for my family, myself, and our home well. We also struggled getting pregnant but are still trusting in God’s timing. As I learned to live with my new limitations, we decided I should go part-time with my job.
Initially I was confused, down, and angry – even in prayer. I did everything I knew to “fix” myself to little avail: detoxing, fasts, new vitamins & pills, a health assessment, copious amounts of research, and pleading with God our Healer. If I’m honest, I shed some tears, too. I couldn’t fix my body and didn’t understand why God didn’t seem to either. Although I’d had similar health issues off & on since college (to a lesser degree), last year I hit a brick wall that I couldn’t move.
Leading up to my crash, I’d been eating an unusual diet due to my hectic schedule and personal stressors – fast food for lunch, whole wheat pasta for dinner, frozen yogurt for dessert, licorice as a snack. I’ve since learned that all 4 have something in common: lots of gluten! Who knew that the #1 ingredient in licorice is wheat flour, or that many chocolate ice creams/froyos add it as a stabilizer? And who would imagine that whole wheat flour actually has MORE gluten than white? Now I’m seeing that – in college, when I first realized something was amiss with my health – I’d just switched to eating all “whole wheat” food!
Then 2 months ago I came across compelling information about gluten and realized it may be part of my problem. I’d tried various “cures” and wasn’t expecting a quick turnaround this time, but to my surprise, after I went gluten-free for several weeks I felt GREAT. I’ve continued eating 90% gluten-free since then and am regaining energy & stamina every day for the first time in 18 months. This is a miracle and God’s answer to my prayers!
I’m overjoyed to say that I can exercise again! I also feel much happier, more peaceful, and less anxious (praise God). My mind seems sharper, my body stronger, and my stamina’s increased. Hallelujah! I don’t want to credit gluten-free eating alone with my health improvements, but I know it’s a major factor. Ultimately, God is the One who heals us, and I’m very thankful He’s been showing me how to regain my health. I’m not in “perfect” health yet, but I hope with time and positive changes I can get there.
Gluten-free may not be the answer for everyone, but I hope my story can help you and others who may be experiencing similar health issues (or others from the list below). If you’re just curious about the gluten-free hype, it’s worth learning about. I only wish I’d considered it sooner!
I’m not an expert, but I researched what a lot of medical/health professionals had to say about gluten for you guys to save you time. Here are my “Cliffs Notes” to going gluten-free. I hope you find it helpful.
[Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so I highly recommend you consult a health professional before starting any new eating program.]
What is Gluten & Why Should I Consider Avoiding it?
Gluten comes from the Latin word for “glue” and is a naturally-occurring protein in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid). Translation: Gluten holds stuff together. This sticky protein likes to linger in our food, bodies, or wherever it goes:
“Gluten is the glue that is used to preserve food for a longer shelf life. When our great, great grandmother baked homemade bread 100 years ago, it fell apart after a day. Now a day’s bread can sit on our counter for weeks and in the refrigerator for at least a month.” –Dr. Dena Mendes
For reasons I’ll explain, many people today are experiencing reactions to gluten. According to Dr. Amy Myers (right here in Austin, Texas), the spectrum of gluten sensitivity ranges from: No problem –> Gluten sensitivity –> Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease).
When someone has celiac disease, small amounts of gluten in their bloodstream (even a crouton’s amount) can trigger an immune response that damages their small intestinal lining. This may interfere with nutrient absorption and cause issues like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, and seizures. Celiacs have to be very vigilant about the amount of gluten they consume because of its damage potential.
While most people aren’t Celiacs, many more are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive.
- 99% of people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease are never diagnosed.
- Between 15-30% of the U.S. population is believed to be gluten-sensitive. In addition, 1% of people worldwide have celiac disease, though experts believe this is greater due to undiagnosed cases.
- In the 1950’s, 1 in 700 people had celiac disease. Today it’s 1 in 133 people (a 5-6 fold increase)!
- A June 2007 study showed that nearly everyone has (at least) a mild reaction to gluten.
- 55+ diseases have been linked to gluten (scroll down for a list).
Wait, but how can gluten be bad for us if it’s natural? Aren’t wheat, rye & barley in the Bible (“Ezekiel bread”)? Didn’t Jesus pray for “our daily bread” and weren’t Temple sacrifices made from wheat?
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Gluten gives bread dough its elasticity, helps it keep its shape, and gives bread a chewy texture. Natural levels of gluten in wheat are a good thing!
However, today’s wheat is very different than God’s recipe or what we ate in the 1950’s.
In the ‘60s, U.S. food makers increased gluten levels in wheat to make it sturdier & easier to process, allowing it to stretch further (and improving their bottom line). They cross-bred or “hybridized” wheat with other grasses to increase its gluten levels, which changed the genetic structure of “new wheat” from 2-4 sets of chromosomes (depending on which type) to 6! New wheat has significantly less nutrients due to the way it’s grown & cultivated.
The bread Americans eats today is prepared very differently than in the past. We don’t bake it ourselves, we use “quick rise” yeast and old/potentially rancid flour, and it sits longer on shelves before consumption (thus increasing the need for preservatives from unnatural sources).
Then, when food makers learned that gluten was a strong binder & stabilizer, they began adding it to a whole host of other items to increase their cohesiveness (“stickiness”): medications, vitamins, veggie and protein burgers, sauces/marinades, salad dressings, ketchup, condiments, even ice cream! They’ve put gluten in so many places – including some toothpastes, cosmetics, & beauty products that leech into our skin – that our exposure to this highly inflammatory substance is much greater than before.
All of these factors combined have drastically increased how much gluten we’re consuming in America.
I don’t believe God intended for us to mess with our food’s genes (hybridizing or “genetically-modifying” them). GMO foods, for instance, are now listed in American’s top 10 most inflammatory (or allergenic) foods including soy, corn, eggs, dairy, and wheat. God made these wonderful foods for us to enjoy, but our bodies don’t recognize their new genetic structure. Instead of digesting them, our bodies often attack them or us, and we become sick.
My personal belief is that many people having success on “Paleo” and “Low carb” diets are getting healthier and losing weight by avoiding the major gluten-containing foods.
What Does Gluten Do?
“New wheat” contains 5% of proteins that weren’t there before. Our bodies don’t know what to do with these proteins! When this happens, it stimulates (or aggravates) our immune systems and causes allergic reactions or even “leaky gut” syndrome.
Inflammation is the root of all disease, and gluten is an extremely inflammatory food, according to Dr. Amy Myers. Because Americans are overexposed to gluten in its unnatural form (“new” wheat), many people have bad reactions to it now.
Most people can’t “feel” inflammation in their body or their thyroid swelling up. Gluten causes “silent inflammation”, but your antibodies can be tested to see if they increase with gluten exposure.
Gluten causes inflammation in the body & more mucus to be produced (maybe because our bodies don’t know how to digest it well). Glutinous carbohydrates also slow your metabolism & prevent healthy brain development. Yet another issue is that gluten-containing food can mimic opiates in our brain, causing strong cravings, compulsive overeating, and physiological withdrawal symptoms when removed – all signs of addiction (no wonder donuts taste so good!).
Signs of Gluten Sensitivity:
- Overall – Chronic fatigue & fibromyalgia (gluten is frequently a part of both), cancer, lethargy after eating gluten, difficulty losing weight (Adults), lack of growth/underweight/malnutrition (Kids)
- Digestive – Gas, bloating, IBS, heartburn/acid reflux, malabsorption, nausea/vomiting, constipation, stomach pain, indigestion, diarrhea, strong cravings (sugar, bread, starchy foods), GERD
- Neurological – Migraines, brain fog, “grain brain” (brain lesions), Alzheimer’s, poor concentration or memory (poor word recall), vertigo/dizziness, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Restless Legs syndrome, insomnia, seizures, numbness in extremities
- Skin – Acne, eczema, keratosis pilaris (“chicken skin” on back of arms), fever blisters, psoriasis, rashes, rosacea, dermatitis
- Respiratory – Asthma, allergies, sinus congestion, respiratory infections
- Behavioral/Mental/Mood – ADHD, autism, dyslexia, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings
- Endocrine/Hormonal – PCOS, infertility, miscarriage, hormonal imbalances, PMS, thyroid disease, iron-deficient anemia, endometriosis, hypoglycemia, diabetes, abnormal periods
- Muscular/Joints – Joint paint, muscle aches or spasms, bone pain, osteoporosis, osteopenia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, joint inflammation/swelling
- Autoimmune – Yeast infections, UTI’s, gallbladder issues, lymphoma, platelet disorders, colitis, lupus, thyroiditis
Dogs and cats don’t digest gluten well either, yet many pet foods contain gluten or MSG (which causes them to eat more)! Today pets have an epidemic of cancer & disease due to eating a processed, unnatural diet similar to our own. If you want a healthier pet, try switching them to a gluten-free diet too.
Best Test for Gluten Sensitivity
There are tests for gluten sensitivity & celiac disease, but several medical professionals recommended a gluten elimination diet for 3-4 weeks as the most accurate way to determine if you have a gluten issue. If you start feeling better, you know you’re on the right track. Then get a test to see if your issue is as serious as celiac disease. A negative celiac result doesn’t mean you aren’t gluten sensitive, though!
Foods to Avoid (unless labeled “Gluten-Free”):
All wheat/barley/rye/triticale products (including malt, malt flavoring & malt vinegar), bulgur, durum flour, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina, spelt, white flour, wheat germ, wheat bran, breads, pasta, pastries/baked goods, pizza, bagels, bread flour, flour tortillas, couscous, muffins, cookies/cakes/pies, pretzels, crackers, cereal, breadcrumbs/croutons, French fries, fried foods, gravy, imitation meat & seafood (i.e. imitation crab in sushi), matzo, processed lunch meat, hot dogs, dressings (including salad dressings), sauces (including soy sauce), seasoned rice & pasta mixes, seasoned potato & tortilla chips, soups, soup broth/bouillon cubes, vegetables in sauce, self-basting poultry. Wheat is also the first ingredient in many “vegan” or “fake meat” products, candy, licorice, and beer.
Foods to Enjoy!
- Fresh, organic/all-natural meat, fish & poultry (except if it’s marinated, battered, or breaded)
- Organic eggs & most dairy
- Organic fruits & vegetables (if too pricey, just buy organic when you’ll be eating the skins)
- Organic/extra virgin oils like coconut & olive oil
- Beans (especially sprouted), seeds, nuts, avocados – healthy fats!
- Quinoa, quinoa pasta, brown & wild rice, corn, pure corn tortillas, & hominy (corn)
- Breads made with “heirloom” / “ancient” / or “heritage” grains (made from saved “old wheat” seeds) & gluten-free oats (make sure they’re labeled GF due to manufacturing cross-contamination – I got mine at HEB)
- Foods from these grains: Amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn/cornmeal, flax, gluten-free flours (e.g. almond, coconut, rice, soy, corn, potato & bean), millet, sorghum, soy, tapioca, teff
- As for alcohol – wine, cider, “gluten-free” beers, and many distilled products
- Gluten-free labeled foods. There are tons of options out there! Just be careful with packaged GF foods because many are highly-refined & not as nutrient-dense. Fresh food is best to ensure you get enough fiber & vitamins. Pregnant/nursing women should take a GF multivitamin.
- Google/Pinterest “gluten-free recipes” or buy The Wheat Belly Cookbook by Dr. William Davis (I saw it for sale at Sprouts last week!)
Bread Alert: You don’t have to swear off the dough! Besides exploring a variety of gluten-free breads on the market, a promising alternative is to go old school and make your own! Instead of buying industrialized breads made for long shelf-lives, you can use a hand grain mill to freshly-grind flour (in lieu of rancid old flour) made from “heritage” grains (instead of hybridized modern grains) and using fermented sourdough cultures (not “quick rise” yeast which doesn’t ferment as well).
Properly-fermented bread should pre-digest the proteins (AKA gluten) in bread so our bodies don’t have to, which may eliminate gluten allergies or potentially even a celiac patient’s negative reaction! The exciting news is there has been some success with this, but always check with a doctor before experimenting with new foods (if you have gluten sensitivity). You can buy “heritage grain” dough on Amazon and make fresh bread from it!
I encourage you to research more for yourself. Here are some helpful resources:
- Top 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Gluten [Video]
- 9 Food Staples for a Gluten-Free Pantry
- Gluten-Free Girl
- The Problems with Modern Wheat
- Whole Grains and the Gluten-Free Diet – Great breakdown of GF grains, preparation, & recipes
- Do Heritage Grains Hold Promise for the Gluten Sensitive?
Have you tried eating gluten-free? Please share your experience in the comments below!