If there is one question I get more than others, it’s “should I go gluten free?” The answer is, maybe. You’ve likely heard several warnings: it makes you fat. It’s bad for your gut. The body doesn’t know how to process it. So is gluten free really necessary for those with autoimmune disorders, or even those who are just looking for a healthier lifestyle?
In order to fully answer that question, let’s back track and look at what wheat used to look like. And for those saying…I thought we were talking about gluten? I’m going to use the two interchangeably since all wheat contains gluten. Gluten itself means “glue” in latin, and is used in breads, pasta, meat substitutes, and even toothpaste in order to glue together particles.
There’s evidence that wheat was around as early as the Paleolithic and early Mesolithic Ages (16,000-15,000 BCE), and back then it was a ‘wild’ wheat. These were un-domesticated grasses, often einkorn (which you can still find today). Fast forward to the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution made wheat more readily available to all. Most bread was being baked at home, but now it was being found in stores (and good ‘ol Wonder bread was introduced in 1927). At this point, wheat was also being cross-bred to help make it easier to mill.
Then in the 1990’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who created the Food Pyramid, listed whole grains as one of the most important food groups and encouraged 6-11 servings per day. It was also around this time that celiac disease became more prevalent.
Today, wheat looks much different than it did thousands of years ago. It is now about two feet tall, whereas before it was much, much taller. Much of it now is grown with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals (glyphosate) to help with growth, as well as being genetically modified (GMO’s). Scientists have since developed new, hybrid strains of wheat that were not found in any of the original plants.
So do these changes mean that wheat is no longer good for us? It’s hard to say. Obviously, we know now that fertilizers, glyphosate and GMO’s have been linked to diseases. So from that standpoint, no, it’s not great. But what about organic varieties that don’t contain these harmful chemicals? That’s where the waters get a bit muddy.
Health Issues and Gluten
First, we’ve got to look at just what health issues you have. For many with chronic anxiety, digestive issues, or skin problems, wheat (or gluten) can exacerbate those. What I often tell my clients is to eliminate them for a couple of months to see how they feel. If they are noticeably better, you have an answer. If they don’t notice many changes, we reintroduce to see if they notice an increase of symptoms (yes, oftentimes this happens). Also, lab work can offer insight in this regard if there are certain markers that were suboptimal, and then improve with removal.
And for those with autoimmune activation…I’ll say it bluntly. Gluten has to go. First, eating gluten triggers the release of zonulin, which is a protein that “opens the gates” to your intestinal wall. This leads to intestinal permeability (aka ‘leaky gut’). Having a leaky gut with autoimmune disease just opens you up to even more autoimmune disorders.
Second, there is something called molecular mimicry, which is essentially a case of mistaken identity. Because the protein structure of gluten looks so similar to some of our bodies tissues (especially the thyroid), this can cause an attack on the body. So every time someone with an autoimmune disease eats gluten, the body sends out antibodies to destroy it. But, this also leads to an attack on tissues by some of those immune cells and just continues the vicious cycle of inflammation. If you want to really nerd out on this, you can read more HERE.
So, ready to go gluten free? Not so fast. Unfortunately many of the gluten free products out there are just as bad as the gluten itself. Loaded with sugar, are highly refined, and contain an ingredient list a mile long. So while you may be inclined to swap out the breads, bagels, and pastas for a gluten free option, don’t. Spend some time reading labels and opt for foods as close to their natural state as possible. Instead of pasta, go with spaghetti squash or zucchini spirals. In lieu of bread, slice up a sweet potato, pop it in the toaster, and top it with your favorite toppings.
If you aren’t dealing with chronic health issues or any type of autoimmune activation, I see no harm in allowing yourself gluten (or wheat) on occasion. But…and this is a big but (ha), I still HIGHLY recommend avoiding the processed kind. There is no nutritional benefit to consuming bagels or breads or cereals. If you find that you really want to have some bread-type product, opt for organic with minimal ingredients. Otherwise, stick with true whole grains (like our ancestors ate!) such as spelt, farrow or bulgar.