Going Gluten-Free

Posted in: Digestion    Lifestyle counseling    Nutrition    

A gluten-free diet can make the world of difference for many people.  Gluten is a protein that is found primarily in certain grains including wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley, triticale, and secondarily in other foods such as oats, and a very wide range of processed foods.

Grains that are gluten-free include amaranth, quinoa, rice, corn, millet, buckwheat (really a legume despite the confusing “-wheat” name), and oats.  There is controversy in the literature as to the presence of gluten in oats and their safety in persons with true celiac disease.  Oats are on many “Avoid” lists for gluten-free diets, however, this is most often due to cross contamination of oats with wheat flour in processing.  Health food stores will often have certified gluten-contamination-free oats available which are often tolerated well by those with gluten sensitivity.  For those diagnosed with celiac disease it is best to avoid oats (along with all gluten containing grains) for several months until the body normalizes and then try a small portion of oats that are guaranteed to be free of contaminants and assess personal response.


Gluten is not found in fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, nuts and seeds, or legumes.  Historically, humans have spent the longest part of our ancestry as hunter-gatherers with grains and dairy entering the food chain when we settled into agricultural societies ~10,000 years ago.  A return to a diet that is predominantly plant-based balanced with protein from ethically raised animals, legumes and raw nuts and seeds is foundational for health…and naturally gluten-free!


In the quest to remove gluten from the diet, when purchasing foods that are processed be sure to check the label for potential contamination with gluten.  Conscientious manufacturers will label whether their food was processed in an area that also processes gluten, even if the ingredients themselves are gluten-free.


A severe intolerance to gluten is called Celiac Sprue disease, which is initially assessed with a blood test, and confirmed as a diagnosis by a biopsy of the small intestine.  Because the blood test for celiac’s is specific for one antigen found in gluten, even if a celiac test comes back negative, an individual may still be intolerant to gluten.  Those with celiac disease require a lifetime of gluten-free foods.  Those individuals with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity may also need to avoid gluten entirely while others may be able to eat gluten containing grains on occasion by avoiding gluten the majority of the time.


Some people are sensitive specifically to wheat but are able to tolerate non-hybridized grains in the wheat family such as spelt and kamut, as well as barley, rye and other gluten containing grains.  An elimination diet is the best way to determine which foods disagree with your body.  Avoid all common allergens (wheat, dairy, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, soy, citrus) for 6-8 weeks and then reintroduce one food for 2-3 days, observe yourself for symptoms, remove that food again if necessary and one week later reintroduce a different food.  A food allergy test is also available through your naturopath, which uses antibodies in the blood to quickly assess foods that disagree with your body.


Hidden Sources of Gluten (gluten-free alternatives are often available in specialty shops)

Wheat and/or gluten is added to many foods.  Read labels in grocery stores and don’t be afraid to ask for ingredients in restaurants.  Common foods containing gluten include Asian foods: soy sauce, miso (may be made with wheat or barley), fake crab meat; Dairy products:  tsatziki, ice cream; Processed foods: spice mixes, sauces – ketchup, mustard, BBQ, and so on, potato chips, cereals, soups, cold cuts, sausages and other meats, anything containing MSG or HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein), gum and candy, and the list goes on…


Medications may contain gluten.  If you are on prescription medications speak with a compounding pharmacist who can customize your prescription for you to be gluten-free.


Other sneaky gluten sources:  stamps, various household glues, powdered latex gloves, art supplies, body care items (lipstick, lip balm, lotion, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.), and some household cleaners too.


Health concerns associated with gluten

In people with and without a celiac disease diagnosis there have been a number of associated symptoms identified.  Many are still under investigation and are not commonly accepted as indications of a gluten sensitivity, however, there is nothing to be lost by experimenting with a gluten-free diet from time to time.  Exploring a gluten-free diet is also a useful tool for identifying and releasing emotional attachments to food and expanding your food repertoire!


Digestive symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, bloating, heartburn, flatulence, and indigestion, but there is increasing evidence that for every person with celiac disease who has digestive symptoms that there may be EIGHT people with celiac who remain undiagnosed because they don’t have digestive symptoms!  When it comes to non-celiac gluten sensitivity the numbers may be even larger.


Other body systems that have been shown to be affected by gluten include the nervous system, the endocrine/hormone system (particularly the thyroid, liver, stress response, and miscarriages), respiratory system, and the cardiovascular system.  There is absolutely nothing to be lost from trying a gluten-free diet, and potentially much to be gained!


Good luck on your journey!

Gluten and health video


A wonderfully extensive practical resource, with everything from recipes to shopping and restaurant guides to travel guides (Did you know that pasta-famous Italy is one of the most accommodating countries for gluten-intolerance?  All Italians undergo the blood test for Celiac’s disease by age 6.).  A great place to look up premade foods, body care products, or household items to determine their gluten status.

An absolutely fantastic website with gluten-free recipes as well as dairy-free and egg-free dishes.

Authors of “Eat Like a Dinosaur” who improved their own health and the health of their 3 children by returning to a Paleolithic diet (which is naturally gluten-free and dairy-free).

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) – another resource for understanding celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and finding recipes and guidelines.

The book “Wheat Belly” by cardiologist Dr. Davis offers insight into how modern wheat is not the same wholesome wheat eaten by our ancestors (or parents!) and the blog gives good recipes, baking substitutions, and allows discussion with others on a gluten-free diet.