The Goods on Gluten-Free – Should You Try It?

by Dr. Rebecca Tocher, ND

One of the most talked about nutrition topics of the past couple of years has been whether or not gluten should have a place – or be forbidden – in our diets. Until recently, even the word ‘gluten’ would have been used almost exclusively in culinary, confectionery, and severe allergy professions alone. But, due to the recent increase in understanding about gluten, its properties, and health effects, the idea of going gluten-free has gained major popularity and as an understandable result, has left many people wondering whether or not gluten-free is the way to go in their own lives.

If you’ve been curious about gluten, even if you’ve already experimented with gluten-free living, it’s important to have a good understanding of the basics around the topic, so you can make informed decisions about the nutrition you and your family access.

What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is the name of a family of proteins found in wheat and wheat related grains. Gluten itself is what enables foods made of ingredients to hold their shape. They act almost like ‘glue’ to give foods texture and hold it together. It can be found in many foods, even where you might not expect it.

There are three big categories of grains that are known as ‘glutinous grains.’ These include:

  1. Wheat (including wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, kamut, and einkorn)
  2. Barley
  3. Rye

Things like breads and crackers, pastries, pasta, cereals, beer, soups and sauces (which could contain grains or flours as thickeners), brewer’s yeast, and food colouring are some foods and beverages that contain these grains and therefore naturally contain gluten but; sometimes, gluten itself is also used in other foods to act as a binding agent to give texture and hold to other products.

Are most people allergic to gluten?
You may have heard that most people cannot tolerate gluten, or that grains today are different than the grains our ancestors used to eat. However, many studies have shown that in fact, grains and gluten are well-tolerated by the majority of people. That being said, there are three key groups of people who greatly benefit from removing gluten from their diets.

  1. Celiac Disease Sufferers

Celiac disease, suffered by 1% of people, is a condition of the immune system in which eating gluten triggers an intestine-damaging response. Symptoms of celiac disease are serious and uncomfortable.  These include abdominal pain, skin rashes, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, unexplained weight loss and more. In cases of celiac disease, it’s imperative for the individual to remove all sources of gluten from their diets as well as from any personal care items they use, since some of the unlikely sources of gluten can include lipsticks and balms, body and hand creams, and cosmetics which could introduce trace amounts of gluten that would trigger a reaction.

  1. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

While celiac disease is rare, based on my clinical experience a significant percentage of people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  This triggers symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, joint paint, and those listed above for celiac disease.  We diagnose this condition through IgG food sensitivity testing (a blood test available in our clinic) detailed history taking, and elimination diets.   It’s important for this group of people to remove gluten from their diets to resolve their symptoms and to ensure they are not taxing their immune systems unnecessarily.

  1. Those with Other Gut Disorders

There’s still a third group of people who also benefit from removing gluten – those who suffer from other gut-related illnesses such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

What do I need to know to go gluten-free?

Whole grains do contain a number of important nutrients, such as fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, folate, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, and some protein. So when deciding to remove gluten-containing whole grains from your diet, be sure to create a robust diet that can replace these, and/or take vitamin and mineral supplements.

Be aware that many gluten-free substitutes like cookies, brownies, and bread usually contain higher levels of fats, sugar, and salt than their conventional counterparts. If you crave the comfort of baked goods or cereals, we recommend creating your own gluten-free versions at home for the healthiest alternative.

Going gluten-free will take time, patience, and practice – we know, because we’ve helped dozens of families do it with success! Sometimes you don’t even realize how much gluten is affecting your system until you eliminate it.

If you suffer from symptoms such as frequent stomach pain, joint pain, headaches, bowel issues or other symptoms that could be related to gluten sensitivity, please book an appointment so we can help you get properly diagnosed and get on an eating plan that is right for your body. We want to make sure you’re living your healthiest life!