Gluten Is Not The Enemy: Why You Might Want To Reconsider Cutting Certain Carbs Michelle Konstantinovsky

Transitioning from Berkeley to Los Angeles this summer, I noticed quite a few striking differences between cities. The weather, for instance. LA sunshine means never having to put on pants, and that’s been fantastically liberating. Transportation isn’t quite the same, either. I sort of miss being able to walk from home to school to Trader Joe’s without provoking bewildered looks from passing drivers.

But I have picked up on one consistency between my bundled up Bay Area brethren and all the tanned, scantily-clad Angelenos: Everyone, everywhere is afraid of gluten.

The interesting thing is that the reasons behind gluten hysteria seem to vary depending on region. In Berkeley, I’m used to Farmer’s Market patrons and vendors extolling the benefits of gluten-free foods along with anything and everything organic, vegan, sustainable, locally grown, free-range, and non-genetically modified. Gluten is basically just another nutritional barometer of moral virtue.

But in LA, the glorious land of no pants, gluten-free eating has gotten a reputation for being reliably waistline-friendly. If we’re playing word-association here, the related terms might be “detox,” “cleanse,” “juice,” and “fast.”

These are of course sweeping generalizations and self-reported observations, but when I went to take a sip of almond milk the other day and noticed the label’s oversized lettering assuring me that the contents was “gluten-free!” I realized that this anxiety really does run deep and rampant. I mean, it never occurred to me to carefully inspect my almond milk for any strains of poisonous, environmentally-unfriendly, fattening gluten in the first place. But are any of those descriptors even accurate, or has gluten just gotten a bad rap?

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Gluten?

Well let’s back up. What the heck is gluten, anyway? Contrary to popular belief (which is—surprise!—often based on misinformation and lots and lots of marketing), it’s not a devil particle sent here to wipe out the human race. It’s actually just a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. And that sort of takes the sexy sinfulness out of it and brings this whole thing back to boring, doesn’t it? Sorry.

Now, there is a very real, very serious autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease. Someone suffering from celiac absolutely can’t eat gluten because doing so causes the immune system to attack the teeny tiny hairs of the small intestine, which keeps the body from absorbing nutrients. Continuing to consume crackers, cookies, and other gluten-laden carbs can actually lead to intestinal cancer in celiac patients.

But let’s look at the numbers. While no one is discounting the fact that celiac exists, it only affects 1 in 133 Americans. That’s certainly not super rare (and not nearly as rare as experts once thought it was), but it also isn’t as common as say, having brown eyes, or being a 28-year-old Twihard (okay, maybe it’s more common than that. I’m coming to terms with my uniqueness).

In addition to celiac disease, however, there’s a whole not-so-fun spectrum of gluten-related disorders. So someone doesn’t necessarily have to have celiac to experience the abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea (yeah, we’re going there), etc. associated with gluten sensitivity.

So Shouldn’t We All Be Scared?

But the question is, should we all be shunning gluten or this just a convenient way for marketers to make us carbophobic and for compulsive dieters to restrict a whole food group?

“Unless you’re gluten sensitive or unless you have celiac, there’s no good reason to go gluten-free, and you might even become malnourished,” says Beth Kitchin, an Assistant Professor and Nutrition Sciences Patient Educator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Gluten is not an evil protein. It’s good for you as long as you’re not sensitive to it.”

“It’s not something that everyone should avoid,” agrees dietician Pamela Cureton, registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. “It’s not like trans fat—it’s not the same thing.”

But “I Really Want To Lose Three Pounds.” – Regina George.

So what’s the harm in cutting some extra carbs to shed pounds? Well, if you’re planning to replace your traditional bagels and breads with the pricey gluten-free alternatives, you might be surprised—and not in a pleasant way.

“When people who do have celiac cut out gluten, they may gain weight because they’re not having diarrhea and malabsorption,” Kitchin says. “When they go gluten-free, they feel better and gain weight back because they’re absorbing nutrients and calories.”

Say what? Gluten-free living is intended to increase the number on the scale?

“It’s the diet du jour,” says Dr. Julie Miller Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of Food & Nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. “Because gluten is in so many things, you will get a temporary caloric restriction if you use other things in its place. People may think that’s causing weight loss, but the simple fact is weight loss requires fewer calories and they have put in a system to help them eat fewer calories.”

So the point is, if you need to lose weight, all those tempting, adorably packaged gluten-free brownies and cupcakes aren’t going to be your magic “diet foods.”

“If you eliminate carbs completely, you have the Atkins diet, but if you take on a gluten-free diet and eat all the products available, you will find a weight gain versus a weight loss,” Cureton said. “It is not recommended for weight loss. It’s not meant for that.”

But I’m On This Detox/Cleanse/Spiritual Starvation Diet…

Just because all those delicious looking treats at Whole Foods boast “gluten-free” ingredients doesn’t mean they’re entirely wholesome. “Not all gluten-free products have been formulated to be honestly healthy,” says Kantha Shelke, Principal and Food Scientist, Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago based food science and research firm. “The replacement of wheat is often done with a mixture of ingredients, many of which are often more glycemic (producing more sugar when digested), and not as high in fiber or protein.”

“Of course manufacturers need a group to sell products to and once they see that there’s a market, they will produce to that market,” Cureton says. “That’s happened through history. When the Atkins craze was at its peak, you saw “net carbs” on everything and everything had “no cholesterol” on it. As the food trend goes, so does the marketplace.”

I’m Just Gonna Try It Out…

So is all this gluten hysteria just another money-making scheme? Not entirely. There are of course people who suffer from celiac and other iterations of gluten sensitivity, but if you suspect you’re one of them, do not—I repeat, do not–self-diagnose.

“I always emphasize not to just try it as a diet, but to ask your doctor to test for celiac first,” Cureton says. “That’s so important because you can’t test for it if you’re already on a gluten-free diet.” The reason is that the typical tests—which include blood samples and something super intimate known as an endoscopy—examine your body’s reaction to gluten, so if you’ve quit consuming it, your doctor won’t know whether or not you might have a real problem.

But I’m One Gluten Disorder Away From Reaching My Goal Weight

And if you’re sitting there crossing your fingers, hoping you have celiac, you might want to redirect your wishes and prayers because being really committed to a gluten-free lifestyle can be a huge pain in the butt—and not just for you, but for anyone you live with too.

“People who really on gluten-free diets have a very difficult time and there’s a lot of really strenuous protocol,” Jones says. “If one family member has it, even if you’re buying the gluten-free bread, my recommendation is to buy another toaster. A lot of people say they have it, but they don’t take the kinds of strenuous precautions to make certain there is no contamination.”

Seriously, Malnutrition’s Not Something You Want

And one last word of warning if you think there’s no harm in skipping gluten: you can be eating all the fruits and veggies in the world and still be malnourished.

“It’s mandatory in the US to fortify grains like wheat with folic acid,” Jones says. “Since that’s been done, the incidences of neural tube defects have decreased dramatically, as have severe birth defects. It’s important to make certain that you’re getting some regular, reliable source of folic acid to prevent problems that might occur with intended or unintended pregnancies.”

And even if you’re light years away from getting preggers, other nutrients might be missing from a gluten-free diet if you’re not super careful. “A risk for cutting out grains is really reducing your intake of certain B vitamins that are in whole grains that are related to a lowered risk of chronic disease,” Kitchin says. “Carbs are our primary energy source, and really from a pure enjoyment standpoint, giving up bread and pasta and other foods that are interesting is not necessary.”

So if you really think you have a disease, get tested STAT. And if you’ve just been playing the gluten-free card as a way to cut calories, do yourself a favor and see a nutritionist for healthier tips instead.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some LA sunshine to soak up before the Bay Area breeze makes pants a mandatory staple again.

Images via Almost Granola, ZazzledeviantArt by OrangeInuYasha and Clockwork Lemon

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  1. Maybe it’s just a U.S. thing, but I wouldn’t say there’s a gluten hysteria. It’s still really difficult for me to find quality gluten-free products as someone with Celiac Disease. Most places I come by in the Toronto area that offer gluten-free are doing it for those with Celiac or an intolerance to provide better tasting and more nutritious options for them. It’s getting so much easier, but I didn’t even know that it is a diet trend. In that case I agree with you, I think it’s pretty hurtful that some people would use others medical conditions to lose weight. It’s like taking advantage of sick people for your own aesthetic benefit. Fuck them, they should learn that trendy diets aren’t very effective. While it’s been proven that there’s too much gluten in the average diet, they should just cut down their intake, not omit it completely. I wish I could eat regular pizza. Count your blessings trendy dieters, jeez.

  2. I was tested for coeliac and came out negative, I was obviously relieved but it didnt explain the severe cramps I’d had for the past 10 months. I was so sensitive to food I got to the point I could only eat powdered food. Yuck. I had to wait 2 months for an NHS dietician appointment so I set about trying to work out what it was I was allergic to just because I was so desperate. I’ve been off gluten and lactose for three months now and began the FODMAP diet on the advice of my dietician this week. I’m finally able to do my job properly now, I can get on a bus without worrying where the nearest toilet is. Its definitely a bonus that ive lost a little weight and feel healthier but not the reason I chose gluten free. I really respect anyone dealing with coeliac and gluten and other intolerances, it can be an embarrassing and belittled condition to deal with. For me gluten isn’t a friend right now, but I’m hoping after finishing the FODMAP we might be able to get re acquainted! :)

  3. This is a great article! I have celiac disease, so gluten is definitely off my list! I’ve also learned that many of the gluten-free substitutes are very unhealthy. It’s really just best to get raw fruits and vegetables and ingredients and get in the kitchen! It’s also safer since you definitely know what’s in your food!

  4. Personally, I have found my go to meals for being gluten sensitive is legume soups and salads. Sure every once in awhile I buy into the marketing ploy that something is a gluten free and usually it is waffles or pasta made of corn or rice flower. But as long as the glycemic index is kept in mind throughout the day when someone is considering their other portions of food this is considered mindful eating to keep the body healthy. I am grateful that I don’t have dermatitis or dandruff unless I slip on my gluten-free diet. Not only is it a gene that is turned on, randomly, and expressed that causes gluten sensitivity but for some people it doesn’t really show until later in life. Some allergies take your body to reach a threshold and you are finally allergic to it. I believe a counter article that discusses why it is important for celiac disease to be more visible and understood is in call. It’s just like having a shellfish or nut allergy.

  5. I get that it’s unhealthy if you don’t have any gluten sensitivities but I do and I don’t know about you ladies but I’m pretty stoked its all the rage. More gluten free proucts keep showing up in my regular grocery store meaning I don’t have to drive further to the pricier health food store. Yay!

  6. Oh! I also remembered, when I was 17 (19 now) I was diagnosed with Mixed Connective Tissue Disease. When I went to a different doctor about a year later and was diagnosed with celaic, I learned if you’re celaic and don’t eat gluten free, not only can it cause cancer and bowel disorders, but it can also cause other auto-immune diseases (like MCTD). Althought we’re unsure of which one caused the other, because they’re both heridtary. Also, to get celaic, you have to have one of two genes (I cant remember what they’re called exactly) to have celiac, and only 1 in 30 people with one or both of these genes actually develop celiac. So aren’t all us celiac’s special? ;)

  7. I have recently jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon not because it’s trendy but because my Naturopathic doctor asked me to try it. I suffer from pretty severe depression and fibromyalgia and have been seeking a non-medicinal way to help alleviate my symptoms. She told me that on of the major effects of gluten on the body is depression. Although I’m not completely gluten-free, I’ve reduced my gluten intake by about 80% and have noticed significant difference in my energy and mood level. As with most things, everything in moderation.

  8. Thank you so much for this article! My family has grown wheat for generations and the growing trend of gluten free is almost insulting to me. I know people with Celiac’s or a gluten intolerance and understand that they cannot eat gluten. I don’t expect or want them to. But for anyone else, wheat products are like most things. Best enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy, well rounded diet. So go ahead and have a muffin.

  9. why is there no mention of gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance here? i’m gluten-sensitive…i can eat gluten in small amounts, occasionally, and be ok. i tested negative for celiac disease, but cutting back on gluten is THE ONLY thing that had helped my painful and annoying digestive symptoms. you might want to look into FODMAPS…it’s a treatment/diet for people who have IBS and it’s low on gluten. not everyone who has IBS is a celiac, but many of them are still affected by having gluten in their system.

  10. Hey, thanks for posting this article! I love hellogiggles and it’s nice to see articles on personal health. And I completely agree with your stance. I think people follow trends for weight loss and it’s not always the healthiest choice. I also think people should do more research before they cut out such a substantial food group from their diets. Love your stuff!

  11. I’m a bit confused. You point out that you may become malnourished if you go on a gluten-free diet because whole grains are fortified with certain B-vitamins such as folic acid. But, you can simply eat foods that have these vitamins to begin with, such as leafy greens, broccoli, nuts & legumes, and many others. It seems to me (and I admit I have no actual evidence for this, it’s just what I suspect) that these grains were fortified with folic acid because, back when that began, people may not have had regular access to a lot of these fresh foods that naturally contain folic acid and other B vitamins. But, if you are willing and able to eat foods that have naturally occurring folic acid and B-vitamins, what’s the big deal?

    I understand that carbohydrates are important to the body since it is what the body burns first for energy. But wheat and other grains aren’t the only carbohydrates out there. I submit to you that it’s perfectly possible to eat a well-balanced gluten-free diet and that it’s not really a cause for alarm. Yes, it’s becoming a trend and yes you can eat pretty unhealthily on it (as any restrictive diet, including veganism) by eating a bunch of desserts and baked goods that use modified starches instead of wheat flour, but, it does not have to be that way.

    I’d also like to point out that celiac is not the only reason one might go gluten-free. Because eating gluten containing foods increases inflammation, it can be helpful to go gluten-free for people with other types of conditions including other types of autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately for people with celiac, they happen to have horrible and noticeable symptoms upon eating gluten-containing foods. However, just because one does not have symptoms, does not mean that something (inflammation) is doing harm to the body. I have been on a grain-free diet since the beginning of the summer after reading a few sources that implicated this since I have Hashimoto’s disorder, an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid gland and can lead to hypothyroidism. If lowering my chances of hypothyroidism means giving up breads and pastas, that’s fine by me. And, for the occasional goodie, you can use almond meal and/or coconut flour to bake cookies and cakes–you don’t have to buy those premade things made with squishy potato and rice starches that are really just nutritionally devoid filler.

    • I agree Sara. There are so many natural ways to get all the nutrients one needs without eating fortified grains. And as for self-diagnosis, I think it’s probably best to get tested, but not entirely necessary if you know your body well enough. I am lactose intolerant as well, and when my symptoms from that did not go away I looked for what the problem could be by watching what I ate and how it affected me. I don’t have celiac, but I have a sensitivity and it makes me really uncomfortable and self-conscious to have people tell me that since I don’t have celiac that I should be eating gluten and that I’m just doing this as a fad-diet thing. Well I’m not and I’d appreciate it if people stopped asking me “Well, how sensitive to gluten are you?”, as if it’s something that won’t really hurt me. Well, you try living with a constantly upset stomach and whatnot and tell me how sensitive you are and that you wouldn’t do everything in your power to avoid it. Sorry, went off a bit. It’s just very frustrating sometimes when people don’t take the condition seriously.

  12. As a ladyfolk with very severe Celiac’s Disease I must say thank you for this article! Wonderful job at explaining why self-diagnosis is so dangerous, Michelle!

  13. This was an interesting article, but I think you need to dig a little deeper on this topic. I wanted to point out that there are no essential grains/carbohydrates. The currently established human essential nutrients are water, energy, amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and ultratrace minerals. Note the absence of specific carbohydrates from this list. It’s true that you would become malnourished if you only ate fruits and vegetables, but that doesn’t mean that eating gluten/grains is the only way, or even the best way, to get folate and vitamin B. In fact, seafood and grass fed lean meats are the very best source of vitamin B and vegetables and fruits are the very best source of folate compared to grains on a calorie-to-calorie basis. The fact that Dr. Jones said folate added to wheat in order to make it a good source of folate should be an indicator of the nutritional value of wheat. Grains cause inflammation in the body and anyone with an autoimmune disorder should avoid eating anything that causes inflammation. One in 12 people in the US, or 23.5 million people, of which 75% are women, have autoimmune diseases. Celiac is just one of hundreds of autoimmune disorders. Maybe the reason gluten free seems to be a trend is because of the unfortunate “trend” of rising autoimmune disease, now the number 8 killer of women in this country. I’m glad you are getting some L.A. sun because the vitamin D is good for you!

  14. Gluten-free isn’t meant to be trendy, it’s specifically designed for celiac’s disease, which unfortunately is on the rise in this country for a mysterious reason. I have so many food allergies, and I am thankful I don’t have that one! Eating alternative bread products that don’t contain gluten wouldn’t cut any carbs or calories, so it doesn’t make sense as a diet plan. And if you had celiac’s and ate it, you would get incredibly sick; it’s like lactose-intolerance only perhaps even worse. Think of gluten-free as being like lactose-free, and that’s a bit closer to the truth.

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  16. My roommate and I were just talked about this gluten thing. We heard Miley won’t go near the stuff…we had an inkling it was more about the trend than about legitimate facts. Thanks for explaining!
    Oh, and also, I’m becoming a fan of you. I know that’s weird but I love the way you write. Totally just got so into this article about gluten! :O)

  17. Gluten has been my enemy since I was a lad. My mom was one of those who grew up in the depression, so I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I finished my plate. A lot of stuff made me sick to eat and I would still be sitting at the table a 1/2 hour after my brothers and sisters had all run off to play while just trying to finish a fraction of what they had on their plates. As I grew older I learned that the food that was making me sick was ladened with gluten. The ignorance of the era and my mom’s insistance that I eat every crumb on my plate because of her upbringing caused a lot of bad childhood memories for me.

  18. “And if you’re sitting there crossing your fingers, hoping you have celiac, you might want to redirect your wishes and prayers because being really committed to a gluten-free lifestyle can be a huge pain in the butt—and not just for you, but for anyone you live with too.”

    As a Celiac, I find this incredibly offensive. It is not a pain in the butt to live with me because I have food allergies. Thanks for making a horrible generalized statement.

    Also, you do not need an invasive expensive test that could actually tell you nothing about celiacs. Go on an elimination diet and see how you feel without eating gluten for 2-4 weeks and then add it back into your diet. Your body knows you well and will tell you how you feel.

    • Also for those of us who are gluten intolerant and not celiac, self-diagnosing (by doing an elimination diet) is actually the only way to find out if gluten is the culprit…I even asked my doctor and she said it was pointless to get tested for an intolerance because the test is meant only to diagnose celiacs.

      Obviously eating gluten free (but simply replacing cookies and bread etc. with GF packaged cookies and bread) wouldn’t make you lose weight…isn’t that just common sense? It is generally still junk food if it’s packaged. Also celiacs sometimes gain weight when they go GF because they are suddenly able to actually digest all the nutrients they weren’t getting before when they were consuming gluten. They are usually malnourished beforehand, and so gaining the weight is a sign they are becoming healthy and their body is properly digesting food now. At least that was my basic understanding of it. But that doesn’t automatically mean that people wanting to lose weight should avoid eating gluten free!

      This article makes it seem like it is dangerous to go GF if you aren’t a diagnosed celiac. I think there are probably a lot more people out there that could benefit from going gluten free, because they don’t realize that their IBS/migraines/depression/anxiety/backpain/menstrual cramps/eczema/acne/sleep issues/and or general feeling of lousiness is actually due to a gluten (or other food related) sensitivity. I don’t see what the harm is in trying out GF for a few weeks just how your body reacts if you are suffering from any chronic symptoms. You aren’t going to suddenly deficient in anything after a few weeks. Not to mention you can get folic acid from taking a vitamin or from actually eating something healthy, like spinach…

    • :( made me sad too. Celiac disease is a horrible auto immune disease to live with and although I may be a pain in the butt it beats kicking it in the ER every week for pancreatitis! And for those who eat gluten free for fun, Thank you! You make it more socially acceptable and products are becoming more easily accessible for all the celiacs! Yay!

    • Well I definitely didn’t mean to offend anyone, so I apologize. Based on the quotes from Dr. Jones, my perhaps too-flippant comment was meant to convey how incredibly challenging it can be to keep up a gluten-free diet and how unnecessary it is do so if a person doesn’t suffer from celiac. And my recommendation to get a blood test and/or an endoscopy comes directly from the four experts I spoke with who all agreed it’s important to have clinical results to confirm celiac and self-diagnosis is not the gold standard for diagnosis. But everyone’s obviously free to do what works best for them!

  19. I have celiac and if I didn’t have it, I would not be on this orrible diet. I have no idea why people eat gluten free when they’re not allergic, it annoys me. If you don’t need to be on this diet due to an intolerance or celiac, then don’t because you will give yourself an intolerance and then you cant go back to eating normal food and you’ll have the cramps and headaches and bloating and wish you’d never even touched the bland food. Although, if you have celiac, you get used to the food :L I’ve been on this diet for a year and a half and I’m still getting used it, as well as being recently diagnosed with a lactose intolerance too -woo. The only reason people lose weight – if they even do- is because they’re not eating anywhere near enough because at first the food is terrible. /endrant

    • I understand how you feel completely. After going gluten free I lost weight but not because gluten free food is necessarily healthier or lower in calories. I just consume way less dessert and bread products (like muffins) because finding gluten free replacements that taste good is hard and expensive! I obviously still eat meals but I don’t have the luxury of consuming yummy and cheap wheat filled snacks in between so I’ve really just cut out the excess calories from my diet. I also think the weight loss could be in part due to more awareness to a person’s diet in general. I eat a lot more fruits and vegetables than I used to. I must admit I kind of appreciate the gluten free fad because it makes it easier for me to find food although I can see how it trivializes those who actually need to eat gluten free.

  20. Yes! Thank you! I feel like so many people are doing the gluten-free diet because it’s trendy or something! But really the only reason you should be doing it is if you have celiac disease! Most of the really nutritional grains, the whole wheat grains have gluten. By taking them out of your diet your depriving your body of that nutrition and relying on grains that don’t have as high of a nutritional value, in fact one that are more fattening, like corn. I don’t think a ot of people realize that.

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