I get a ton of questions about gluten and weight loss. I wrote about it here but I felt like I needed to take a deeper dive and consider not just the fat loss implications but also the overall health implications. I could sum it up pretty simply: we don’t need to eat gluten. It isn’t providing any nutritive value that we can’t get from other foods that don’t carry the same potential adverse health effects. With that said, there are a lot of tasty foods that contain gluten and many people don’t want to miss out on things like bread and pasta unless they really have to. I get it. I really do. And if ever make my way back to Italy I certainly won’t skip the pasta out of fear of gluten. But….we need to understand the risks. We need to understand what gluten is, what it does in the body, the potential health risks and how gluten impacts our ability to burn fat and reach our health goals.
If I were to take it only a little bit further and make a recommendation without diving into the nuts and bolts of gluten, digestion, & inflammation, I would say this: your body holds the answer to what you should do about gluten. Your body is the most powerful resource there is. Not science, not blogs, not expert opinions, just your body. Some of you might already know that you have an adverse reaction to gluten. You might experience bloating, fatigue, acne or joint pain when you consume gluten. For you, it’s a no brainer. Avoid it. But for others, you might not know if gluten is a problem for you. Maybe you’ve lived for so long with chronic fatigue that you just think it’s your body’s standard operating procedure. Or maybe that eczema you’ve had just seems like your lot in life and you have no idea that it’s actually tied to your dietary habits. There’s no harm in eliminating gluten for 1-2 weeks and monitoring how you feel. That will provide you with every answer you need and will prove to be far more valuable than anything I could write here or any research you could find. Pay attention to how the elimination impacts your hunger, cravings, mood, bloating, body weight, fat loss, skin health, respiratory health, focus, attention span….Just start paying attention. If you feel a lot better then there is your answer. You don’t need to add it back in. If you aren’t really sure, slowly add in a small amount and monitor how you feel. Assess any changes. That is really the most impactful way to assess your own body and what is best for you. The only information that matters is the information your body will provide you.
I feel like I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t say that just because you don’t feel symptoms of gluten sensitivity doesn’t mean that you aren’t gluten sensitive and doesn’t mean that gluten isn’t potentially causing a problem within your body. Gluten could create a problem that you just can’t feel yet. Here’s a good example: There’s been a lot of research demonstrating that consuming gluten increases the presence of an enzyme called “zonulin”. Zonulin is in charge of your intenstinal permeability – determining what is allowed to pass through your intestinal walls. Now, if something gets through that isn’t supposed to, that can be bad news for your health. Your body can launch a counter attack, identifying that foreign substance and creating an immune response to annihilate it. Elevated levels of zonulin are associated with higher incidences of auto-immune diseases – diseases of the immune system that can potentially originate from excessive intensintal permeability – stuff getting through that shouldn’t. It might take years for you to feel that or experience those impacts.
Gluten consumption can also decrease blood flow to areas of your brain – specficially to the frontal and prefrontal cortex – parts of the brain that allow you to focus, manage emotions, plan/organize, and understand the consequences of your actions. It’s this particular mechanism – this impaired blood flow to the brain – that is the focus of a lot of research on why people with autism or ADHD often see major improvements when they remove gluten from their diets. (By the way, next time I do something stupid or that I regret I might totally blame it on gluten….just saying…it’s worth a shot?)
So what is gluten and where is it? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barely, rye and other grains. So essentially, it is a protein found in many carbohydrates and almost all processed foods. Due to modern food processing, it’s also in most oat products. Knowing how widespread gluten is, you might be wondering why it seems like gluten is “all of a sudden” a problem. Well, its really just about how much more gluten we’re exposed to over the last 20 or so years with the advent and infiltration of processed foods. Gluten is in almost all processed foods and those are a staple in the standard American diet. It didn’t use to be that way. Our exposure and consumption are through the roof!!!
If you want to cut way back on gluten, the simplest way to do that is by avoiding wheat products & processed foods. That right there will drastically cut your intake. Completely removing gluten takes a lot more work. Gluten is in so many things these days! Seriously! Gluten is in salad dressings, soups, beer, grain alcohols, ketchup, sauces, spice mixes, processed meat & sausages, cosmetics…the list goes on! If it’s not a fruit, vegetable, non-processed meat or raw dairy product, you might as well assume it contains gluten unless specifically labeled “gluten-free”. A quick note about “gluten free” snack foods like cookies, chips, crackers and brownies: Gluten free junk food is still junk food. Just because it is labeled “gluten free” doesn’t magically make it good for you. Treats are treats, gluten free or not, and should be limited. I know, I know, that makes it really hard to eliminate. However, if you’re following primal diet principles – eating primarily meat, seafood, poultry, game-meats, fruits and vegetables, you’ll avoid it pretty easily. You can try to do this for a couple of weeks and closely monitor how you feel and what kind of progress you make towards your fat loss goals.
Remember – there is no nutritional advantage to eating gluten. The fiber, vitamins and minerals can be easily obtained via fruits and vegetables. That is now, however, an argument for going gluten-free. The best way to make that decision is by paying close attention to how gluten impacts YOUR health and YOUR body.
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