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Should you avoid gluten (or other foods)? Today I want to talk about this topic. There’s a lot of confusion online about wheat and gluten and many may assume that because I am personally gluten-free that I think everyone should avoid gluten…but is that what I really think?
This post evolved out of a recent podcast I listened to. I love podcasts and have a handful that I tune into regularly. After listening to one specific episode recently where the host gave this same <bad> advice for about the 8th time, I had to sit down and write my thoughts out. I was becoming irritated because of the people listening who may need to hear something else.
This podcast host stated that unless you have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, there is absolutely no reason to avoid gluten. From what I have observed in past episodes, they take a hard stance against removing foods from your diet unless you have a formal disease/allergy diagnosis. In some cases, I have heard them (and others) state that it’s dangerous to remove certain foods from your diet (in almost all of these instances, they were referring to wheat/gluten, but I’m sure that applies to other foods as well).
The podcast host has also mentioned that this obsession with “gluten-free” can lead to disordered eating, and even eating disorders, which I don’t disagree with. Anytime we start restricting foods, whether necessary or unnecessarily, certain people may find that they start exhibiting disordered behaviors around food. That is a very real thing so I absolutely don’t discount that potential issue. Does it happen to everyone? Definitely not, but it still happens and more frequently than you may think and it’s a very common thing that I see in my own practice as a health coach.
But, I feel that the host making a blanket statement that unless you have Celiac disease you should not avoid gluten is irresponsible. The question of should you avoid gluten or not really is quite personal and I disagree with a broad statement that it is safe or unsafe for everyone. There are a wide range of food sensitivities (minor to severe). You don’t always need an allergy or disease diagnosis to know that certain foods just don’t work for your body.
You (and only you) Are Your Body’s Expert
When it comes to food sensitivities and allergies, it’s not just gluten. It can be ANY food. While gluten, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts, and nuts tend to be the most common, you can be sensitive to ANY food. I know people who are allergic or sensitive to mushrooms, strawberries, coconut, avocados, mangoes, and more… All of those foods are healthy, real foods. But they simply don’t work for every body.
Some people may find that they can eat a tiny bit of a problematic food with no issues, but if they eat too much they have issues. Others may find that if they eat ANY of a food they have issues. And then there are people who are so sensitive that even cross-contamination can cause issues.
Our bodies are UNIQUE. There is no single food that is safe for everyone.
So guess what? That means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to food sensitivities. Just because you may not have a sensitivity that is severe enough to get a disease/allergy diagnosis does not mean that all foods work for your body.
I personally do not have a formal food allergy diagnosis. But I do have autoimmune conditions that are directly impacted by what I eat. For example, gluten is a no-go for me. I may not have Celiac disease, but you can see a direct correlation in my lab work when I eat gluten vs. when I don’t.
I also know that I am sensitive to dairy. When I eat dairy, I get headaches, congestion, and neck pain. I also notice an increase in brain fog and fatigue whenever I consume dairy. The mere fact that my body is responding in this way gives me solid evidence that dairy simply does not work for me.
Tuning Into Your Body Wisdom
So, when asking if you should avoid gluten (and other foods), the key here is to tune into YOUR body. Listen to what your body is telling you after consuming certain foods. Some foods may work great (i.e. give you lots of energy, focus, motivation, etc.), while some foods may cause issues (i.e. digestive distress, brain fog, fatigue, etc.).
This is where reconnecting with your intuition and body wisdom is going to be important. So many of us wander through life disconnected from ourselves. We have spent years on different diets and listening to different experts telling us what foods we should and should not eat.
But who is a better expert about OUR BODY than us? No one. Which is why I am so passionate about helping women tune back into that inner wisdom so they can make really empowered choices around their health and start learning what foods work for them and what foods don’t.
For someone to say that unless you have been formally diagnosed with Celiac disease, gluten is fair game, well, I have issue with that because actually, yes, you CAN have a sensitivity to a certain food (or foods) without having a diagnosed allergy or disease. The question of should you avoid gluten can only be answered by one person…YOU!
Should You Avoid Gluten (and other foods)?
If you ask someone “should you avoid gluten?” you will likely get a large array of responses. If you had asked me 5 years ago, I would have said: “yes, absolutely!”. I spent a good 5 years vilifying food. I remember talking to many people about how evil gluten was. How sugar was the devil. How this food was “good” and that food was “bad”. Those days are long-gone for me. While recovering from severely disordered eating and a lot of body image struggles, I realized how this black and white approach to nutrition was causing me a lot of mental strife.
So, should you avoid gluten (and other foods)? My answer is no. I know that might come as a shock since almost all of the recipes on my site are gluten-free and I myself follow a gluten-free style of eating. But, just because this is what I do doesn’t mean that it’s what you need to do.
Even though some folks consider my style of eating as “paleo”, I don’t believe in evolution or some of the anthropological premises of the paleo movement (i.e cavemen). I believe that God created all foods (real food) and that includes wheat. Why were people able to eat wheat for thousands of years with no issue, while today we have an increase in food allergies and intolerances to wheat and many other foods?
I don’t personally think that gluten is the devil it has been made out to be and I apologize for the years that I have vilified it. When we learn more and know better, we do better, right? That said, I DO believe that what we have done to conventional wheat and our environment is the driving force behind so many people not being able to tolerate gluten.
Einkorn and Ancient Grain Varieties
In my opinion, the question of should you avoid gluten comes down to how it makes you feel physically. If you don’t have any issues eating gluten then you may not necessarily need to avoid it. Perhaps you truly don’t have any issues with gluten, or perhaps you just haven’t uncovered that you do because you are not picking up on the signals your body is giving you.
That said, if you are eating wheat and other grains, I would strongly encourage you to avoid conventionally grown wheat (and other grains like spelt, farro, etc.) and opt for organic, and if possible, heirloom varieties of wheat and other grains as they tend to be better digested. Back when I was still eating wheat, I did try to follow traditional preparation methods like soaking and sprouting to improve digestion. The Nourishing Traditions book is one of the best resources on this and I recommend that book to everyone.
I personally know several people who have all sorts of digestive issues with conventional wheat, but if they eat heirloom/ancient varieties of wheat (like Einkorn for example), they tolerate it just fine. I asked in a couple of my professional networking groups about this and a few people have posts on their website about the topic that I thought I’d share too:
- 6 Benefits of Baking with Sourdough via Learning and Yearning and Everyday Full
- The Case for Einkorn via A Modern Homestead
- Why I Love Sourdough So Much via Purposeful Nutrition
- Delicious Traditional Homemade Einkorn Sourdough Bread via Real Food RN
Removing Foods is an Individual Choice
When it comes to removing any food from your diet, it is going to be a very individual choice. I really want to emphasize that just because someone writes a blog post about how x,y,z foods are ruining your health doesn’t mean you need to listen to it. Even some practitioners are hasty to suggest removing a ton of foods without really spending time with the client/patient and digging deeper.
Removing foods is not always the answer and, in many cases, can make things worse in the long run. Again, this is where tuning into your body and getting to know its signals is going to be critical. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of intuition and body wisdom in cultivating true, lasting health.
If you find that certain foods upset your stomach or cause other unwanted symptoms, it might be a good idea to try removing them for a certain amount of time (30-90 days) and then reintroduce them one at a time to see if you remain sensitive. This is called an elimination diet and is the gold standard when it comes to identifying what foods might be causing negative reactions. I have an in-depth post about 3 Ways to Figure Out What Foods Work For You here that you can dive into for more info.
4 Issues with Modern Wheat and Gluten Tolerance
This is a super complex topic and to be honest, this blog post has already evolved into far bigger of a post then I had expected. In an effort to keep your head from spinning in circles, I am going to cover the basics and then link to some sources where you can dive deeper if you so choose. Let’s take a look at 4 of the main reasons that I think gluten in and of itself is not the issue.
Conventional Wheat and Hybridization
First, conventional wheat (i.e the wheat that is used to make your standard grocery store products) has been hybridized to death. Hybridization is different than genetic modification. There is a lot of misinformation out there about this. As of the writing of this post, there is no GMO wheat on the market in the United States even though I regularly see people stating that there is.
Unlike genetic modification, hybridization does not mix DNA from multiple organisms. Hybridization refers to the natural section of traits that are more desirable in a specific plant. For example, a farmer can cultivate crops over time that have more of a desired characteristic and less of an undesirable one.
Hybridization has happened since the beginning of time and is completely natural. In truth, pretty much every food we eat today has been hybridized to some extent. Hybridization in and of itself is not a bad thing, but when taken to extremes, it could potentially pose a problem. There’s a lot of speculation that hybridization of our wheat crops has led to some of the issues we have today. Do we know for sure? No, but it’s definitely possible.
Further Reading on hybridization and health:
- Why Modern Wheat Is Worse Than Older Wheat via HealthLine: Authority Nutrition
- The Problems with Modern Wheat via Mark’s Daily Apple
- The Real Problem with Grains via Wellness Mama
- Hybridization in Plants: Old Ideas, New Techniques via PubMed
Conventional Wheat and Toxic Chemicals
Second, there has been a shocking increase in the use of toxic chemicals on wheat fields (and other crops too) over the last few decades, specifically glyphosate. If you’re not familiar with what glyphosate is, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research arm has ruled it to be a likely carcinogen. Glyphosate is the main ingredient used in Monsanto’s hugely popular herbicide (weed killer), Roundup. It is widely used on staple GM crops like cotton, soy, and corn, but it is also used on wheat (non-GM).
Dr. Stephanie Seneff is a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and she has dedicated much of her career to studying this issue. She has authored studies and research papers, as well as done countless presentations and interviews. Most people don’t know this, but it is very common for conventional wheat fields to be sprayed with glyphosate right before harvest. According to Dr. Seneff,
“desiccating non-organic wheat crops with glyphosate just before harvest came in vogue about 15 years ago. Interestingly enough, when you expose wheat to a toxic chemical like glyphosate, it actually releases more seeds. “It ‘goes to seed’ as it dies,” Dr. Seneff explains. “At its last gasp, it releases the seed.” This results in slightly greater yield, and the glyphosate also kills rye grass, a major weed problem for wheat growers that is resistant to many other herbicides. What they’re not taking into consideration is the fact that rye grass helps rebalance the soil, and from that perspective is a beneficial plant.” (source and source and source)
Glyphosate is a horribly toxic chemical that is being used on our food. If you Google pictures of people applying glyphosate, they are wearing hazmat suits. Why on earth do we think it’s safe to eat food that has been sprayed with something that requires a hazmat suit to apply?
The issues with glyphosate are far too many to go into in this specific post. But, if you are interested in digging into the topic, here are some resources for further reading:
- Green Med Info
- Health Impact News
- Dr. Seneff’s work on the MIT site here
- Jeffry Smith’s Institute for Responsible Technology
Conventional Wheat and Our Microbiome
Third, as a whole, our microbiomes (the good and bad bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that live in our gut and on our body) have been damaged and are greatly “out of whack”. This has occurred from decades of highly refined and processed foods, exposure to toxins in our water, air, soil, and homes, and the increase of “modern lifestyle” problems like increased stress, increased EMF exposure, lack of sleep, lack of proper movement, lack of time in nature, etc.
The health status of our gut microbiome is going to directly relate to our ability to digest and tolerate foods. If our gut is not in optimal health, it is quite likely that increased food sensitivities, and even allergies, will develop over time. Could the increase in food sensitivities and autoimmune disease be related to poor microbiome health? Absolutely!
The microbiome is a fascinating topic, but it can also be a bit complex and too much for this post. If you want to dig deeper in this areas, here are some resources:
- Microbiome 101 interview with Tami Chu of Organic Crumbs Wellness
- PubMed abstract about the Microbiome and Gluten
- The Influence of the Microbiome on Gluten-Related Diseases via the Dr. Schär Institute
- The Microbiome and Celiac Disease: A Bacterial Connection via Amy Burkhart, The Celiac MD
Conventional Wheat is Highly Processed and Refined
Lastly, modern wheat products are highly processed and refined. It is stripped of nutrients during this process and then “fortified” with those nutrients when it is turned into food products. Any food that has to be “fortified” really is not food. Food should come as a complete package with all of the macro- and micronutrients needed for the body to assimilate what it needs. This is why I am such an advocate of real, WHOLE food.
I believe wholeheartedly that the increase in processed and refined foods has led to the increase in food sensitivities, allergies, and chronic health problems. Without proper nutrition, your body simply cannot maintain good health.
Could it be that it’s what we humans have done to our food that is causing the issues…not the food in and of itself? People have eaten wheat and many other foods for millennia with no issues. All of this gluten intolerance and rise in Celiac disease is a relatively new occurrence. Why is it that our ancestors could eat wheat with no issues? Could it be the four issues I mentioned above (and perhaps others too)?
Food for thought, eh?
The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet
Before I wrap up this post (thank you for reading this far if you have!), I have to address this issue. Over the last 10 years or so, there have been experts who have come out and stated how dangerous it is for people to avoid gluten, unless they have Celiac. Chris Kresser (one of the few clinical practitioners that I trust wholeheartedly) addressed this very topic last year and I was so happy to hear his podcast episode where he spoke about it.
In 2017, there was an article published on the University of Wisconsin website about an observational study that stated patients who followed a gluten-free diet could possibly be causing low good bacteria and putting themselves at risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Chris wanted to address this with some excellent points that you never hear discussed in the circles who believe that gluten-free is dangerous. If you want to read the transcript and listen to the episode you can do that here. I’ll hit the Cliff’s Notes version below.
As Chris reminds us, correlation does not always equal causation. There are always going to be other factors that need to be considered and in some cases with observational studies, these factors do not come into play. That’s not to say that an observational study is not valid or helpful. They definitely are, but further study needs to take place.
In the case of this specific study, the researchers observed that people who ate a gluten-free diet had lower levels of beneficial bacteria. Obviously, the initial knee-jerk assumption could be that the gluten-free diet caused the decrease in beneficial flora. But is that actually true? Chris asks:
“…what we need to do is think about possible mechanisms, so what increases or decreases beneficial bacteria? What is in gluten-containing products that could positively impact beneficial bacteria, and what might people who are on a gluten-free diet be eating more of or less of that would lead to lower levels of beneficial bacteria?”
He goes on to discuss how many people who go on a gluten-free diet start consuming highly processed and refined gluten-free foods. Just because a food is labeled “gluten-free” does not mean it’s healthy. As a matter of fact, if you spend time in the grocery store comparing the labels of common gluten-free foods with similar gluten-containing foods, you’ll notice that there’s not a lot of difference in the overall ingredients. Lots of processed and refined flours and sugars.
When it comes to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, fermentable fiber is key. Fermentable fiber means fiber that our gut bacteria eat to help proliferate (it is also called PREbiotics). There are a number of studies now that show that fermentable fiber is the single biggest factor (from a dietary perspective) that determines the status of our beneficial bacteria.
It could be reasoned that someone who is eating a diet high in fermentable fiber could have a healthier, more robust microbiome than those who are not. Fermentable fiber comes from whole foods (veggies, starchy tubers, whole grains, fruits, etc.) not highly refined/processed foods. So those who are eating a well-rounded whole food gluten-free diet is likely going to be getting plenty of fermentable fiber in their diet to help keep their microbiome healthy. Granted, there is a lot more that goes into keeping your gut bacteria healthy and strong, but this gives you a great foundation to start.
Lastly, Chris touches on how the media often oversimplifies things in order to make sure the general public can understand it. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems maintaining the integrity of the information gathered in the scientific study. Some of this is also driven by wanting people to actually click and read the article, so shorter, less complex titles play better than more descriptive complicated titles.
What Can We Take Away From All This?
So, should you avoid gluten (and other foods)? Ultimately, everything comes down to two things:
- Personal intuition and body wisdom — what REALLY works for your body? What signals does your body give you when you eat a food that it doesn’t like? Pay attention to the foods give you energy, clarity, focus, and drive. Look for foods make you feel inflamed, fatigued, foggy, and ill? If this feels foreign or difficult, read this post about 3 Practical Ways to Cultivate Body Wisdom and Intuition.
- Quality — the quality of the things we put in our bodies really does matter. No matter what style of eating you follow, if it’s filled with processed, refined, packaged foods then your overall health will decline. It doesn’t truly matter if those packaged foods are organic, “gluten-free”, etc. They still are not going to be nutritionally-dense and over time will lead to a decrease in nutritional status and overall health.
If you do not have any issues with certain foods then I personally don’t see any reason not to eat them. Like I said at the top of this post, we are all unique. There is a huge range of food sensitivities and allergies. Just because you don’t have a diagnosed allergy or illness doesn’t mean that cutting out certain foods can’t be helpful. But at the same time, cutting out foods just because someone says you should is not always a good strategy either.
Health and nutrition really doesn’t have to be complicated, boring, or difficult. Just because someone says something is healthy or not healthy, doesn’t mean you have to follow that advice.
Food & Body Freedom eCourse (Free)
Focusing on real, whole foods as the bulk of your diet will take you far. But don’t forget that while real food matters, it’s not the only thing that matters. There is far more to health and healing than just food. While I am super passionate about nutrition as it relates to our physical health, I am also equally as passionate about our emotional and mental health.
After decades of a very disordered relationship to food and body (that ultimately led to a decline in my health), I discovered that there is a fascinating relationship that humans have with food. Food can be a very emotional, sensual, pleasureful, exciting thing for us. But, food can also cause us a lot of stress, anxiety, and unwanted behaviors. If you are feeling stressed out about your relationship to food (and/or your body), I’d love to invite you to join my complimentary eCourse, Food & Body Freedom.
The Food & Body Freedom eCourse was created as a way to help women transform their relationships to food and body. In a world that is filled with all sorts of complex and overwhelming nutrition and health advice, so many of us find ourselves experiencing all sorts of confusion around food. This course developed out of my own disordered relationship to food and body and drives my passion to help women around the world reclaim their personal power and step forward into a life they truly love. Join the eCourse here and feel free to message me with any questions you may have.