How to tell if gluten-free is right for you
A friend recently told me that she was allergic to her couch. This couch was bad news. It made her sick to her stomach. It caused her to gain 10 pounds. I made her skin turn pale. It zapped her energy and made her tired all the time.
So what did she do?
She got rid of the couch. Literally threw it out.
Now she's walking three miles a day. She's lost the extra weight around the middle. Plus, she feels terrific.
Was the couch really the problem?
Of course not. My friend was the problem. She sat on that couch every night for hours, watching TV and munching on junk instead of doing something productive.
That's kinda how I feel about the "new" gluten-free diets all the celebrities now rave about.
First, these diets aren't really new. Nutritionists have known for decades that for some people gluten is a serious problem. (Keep reading to learn about my 12-point checklist to see if you may have gluten sensitivity in a moment.)
Second, gluten isn't really the main culprit for most people. The problem lies in their overall diet. Too much sugar. Too many fried foods. Too much white flour. But when you cut out gluten, you tend to cut out most processed foods as well. You start feeling great and losing weight.
Just watch out for gluten-free junk food now hitting grocery store shelves. More and more you see gluten-free cookies, cakes, and snack foods on the shelves. This stuff is pure junk, minus the gluten. Stay clear of it.
What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, oats, and rye. So if you're on a gluten-free diet, it means you don't eat foods that contain "regular" flour. This includes bread, pasta, cereal, pizza, and most convenience foods. Food manufacturers also use gluten to bind together and thicken their product's ingredients. So surprisingly, you will find gluten in processed products like ice cream and salad dressing.
So how can you tell if gluten is really a problem for you?
First, take a good, hard look at your diet. How much processed or fried food do you eat? Do you eat sugar? Do you eat foods that contain white flour? If you said "yes" to any of those questions, try starting there.
Cut out all this and see how you feel in a week or two. If you feel better, you'll know that gluten wasn't the problem. You see, like my friend, some people think the couch is their problem. But the couch isn't the problem. And neither is gluten. Eating a donut and a Mountain Dew for breakfast is what's killing them.
On the other hand, if you follow a clean diet and still suffer from a range of symptoms (see the checklist below), you may have a gluten sensitivity.
How to tell if gluten is really a problem for you
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that's becoming more and more common. If you have Celiac disease and eat gluten, for some reason your immune system misfires. It begins to attack and destroy the tiny villi that run along the walls of your intestines. These villi transport nutrients from your intestines out to your blood. So if your villi become damaged, you become malnourished, no matter how much healthy food you eat.
Each person is different, but some of the hallmark symptoms include:
1. Abdominal bloating & pain
2. Diarrhea & fatty stools
4. Unexplained weight loss
In adults, Celiac disease can be much more subtle. Some of the symptoms include:
5. Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
8. Joint pain or arthritis or osteoporosis
9. Depression or anxiety
10. Tingling numbness in the hands and feet
11. Canker sores inside the mouth
12. An itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
As you can see, Celiac disease in adults can be very hard to diagnose. Most adults suffer for years before they receive the right diagnosis.
To find out if you have Celiac disease, ask your doctor for a blood test. To test positive for Celiac, certain hallmark antibodies will show up in your blood. You may also ask for an intestinal biopsy.
You can also ask your doctor or allergist for a skin test to see if you are allergic to wheat. If you test positive for a wheat allergy, you will definitely start feeling better once you cut out the gluten.
However, another hidden condition can be mistaken for a gluten sensitivity...
Candidiasis: The Black Sheep Problem
Candida albicans is a form of yeast that inhabits the human body. However, the healthy bacteria in your gut called flora normally keep it in check. But if your stock of good bacteria gets wiped out, the yeast can grow and take over.
Things that zap your supply of good bacteria include: antibiotics, birth control pills, steroids, synthetic hormones or chemo. If you get the flu or have chronic diarrhea, you can also run into trouble. I also see it occur in folks who eat lots and lots of white flour and processed foods. All these things wipe out healthy bacteria that normally keep the yeast in check in your intestines.
There is no blood test for candidiasis, so most conventional docs deny it exists. But it does exist. The symptoms are very real. Though, they're often vague and may appear unconnected, such as:
- Multiple GI problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Cravings (for wheat, yeast, sugar, refined carbs)
In addition, recurrent vaginal or oral yeast infections almost always points to an underlying systemic yeast problem.
How to solve the problem of yeast
There's no quick fix for candidiasis. To eradicate it completely, first of all you've got to get off all sugar and refined carbs. This won't cure the problem. But steps 2-4 won't work unless you've done this first.
Second, you will want to reintroduce the "good guys" back into your digestive system. High doses of probiotics will help create an environment in you gut where yeast can't survive.
Third, you may have to take a prescription anti-fungal med such as Diflucan, Sporonox, or Nystatin. You can also try a natural agent like caprylic acid. I only recommend trying this under the guidance of an experienced natural health practitioner.
Fourth, you'll want to make your gut more receptive to healthy bacteria. Start by taking a daily dose of prebiotics (such as FOS). This will feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. You may also consider taking garlic extract or the antioxidant powerhouse l-glutamine.
Lastly, I highly recommend reading a book called The Yeast Connection Handbook by Dr. William Crook. (Skip The Yeast Connection. It's an older version.)
In the newer book, Dr. Crook says Candida is a major pathogen that can weaken the immune system, allowing other infections to occur. You could also try reading The Yeast Syndrome, by John P. Trowbridge. (You will also find a shorter version of their guidelines in my book, Nutritionally Incorrect, 2nd edition.)
So after reading all this, is gluten a problem for you?
Though I recommend cutting out the sugar and processed stuff first to narrow in on the problem. If it turns out that gluten is really a problem for you, there are plenty of other whole grain options besides wheat.
Grains that don't contain gluten include corn, potatoes, rice, millet, and quinoa. Just don't get into the habit of eating gluten-free junk food. Skip the gluten-free neon orange cheese balls that cost $5 per bag. Try some hummus and celery instead.
About the author
Nationally acclaimed as America’s “Nutrition Physician,” Dr. Spreen has been helping people stay healthy and disease-free as a private doctor, published author, and noted researcher.
In addition to his role as a Senior Member of the prestigious Health Sciences Institute Advisory Panel in Baltimore, MD, Dr. Spreen also coaches diving at the international and Olympic levels. NorthStar Nutritionals is proud to have Dr. Spreen as our Chief Research Advisor.
Dr. Spreen also writes the Guide to Good Health.