Gluten is a common “bad word” in the health world today. But is that the real issue?
Is gluten actually bad for everyone?
Should we be looking for gluten-free foods?
Let’s unpack this issue…
Many people react with varying degrees to certain foods. The general umbrella for many of these reactions is referred to as an Adverse Reaction to Food, which includes both food allergies as well as food intolerances.1
In an actual food allergy, the immune system is activated by the food and that immune response is what causes the symptoms.1 Recall that the purpose of the immune system is to keep you safe from harm. (It’s your body’s army or defense system.) The immune system kicks in when it believes there is something harmful in your body. This is normally referring to some pathogen such as a virus, bacteria, parasite, etc., but can also occur with certain foods (as is the case with food allergies).
Food intolerances occur when there’s an adverse reaction to a food but, rather than being from an immune response (as is the case of food allergies), it is happening because of the way the body processes the food (or something in the food).1 This is often the case, for example, when someone reacts to dairy milk because they lack sufficient enzymes to digest it. Food intolerances could be from a toxin, enzyme issue, psychological nature or other challenges.
There are also food sensitivities, which also don’t invoke an immune response but still cause a reaction, although not an adverse reaction. In these cases, the reaction is minor and often lasts only a few minutes. With food sensitivities, it’s unclear if it is due to a food allergy or a food intolerance.1
Foods that can create gut inflammation
It’s also important to note that many people just don’t feel good after they eat certain unhealthy processed foods. They may not have hives or anaphylaxis, but they have an upset stomach or general malaise after consuming certain foods. This can be common when eating what I refer to as “franken-foods,” or foods that come from a lab rather than nature. Examples of this would be PopTarts, Doritos, soda, processed meats (hot dogs), and candy bars. These are made up of lots of dyes, nitrates, preservatives, various herbicides/pesticides/fungicides and other substances that are not really meant for human consumption. Many processed foods even have carcinogenic properties.2 In many cases, some of these toxic substances have been banned in other countries.3 Bad feelings after these types of foods are simply the body’s way of protesting. In most cases, not feeling well (if we are appropriately tuned in) should help caution us from consuming that substance again. You should feel ill when you eat foods like this. (If you don’t, you likely have a lot of work to do!)
So back to the original question: “Should all people avoid gluten?”
First, there are a few things to consider:
- Gluten itself is naturally occurring and not allergenic for all people. Of course, for those who have some sort of known adverse reaction to gluten they should avoid it.
- Ideally, with holistic health care you want the vast majority of your diet to be made up of whole foods, natural, unprocessed foods, which will naturally eliminate most gluten other than in a few whole grains (whole wheat berries, etc.). Not too many people are fighting for wheat berries… Haha.
- Be careful if you’re avoiding gluten but still eating lots of processed foods. It is common for food manufacturers to remove the gluten but add all kinds of sugar, corn products and other problematic substances to take its place. You’re trading fire for fire in this case. It’s yet another reason to just stick with whole foods!
- For many people, it’s often not gluten per se that they are reacting to but rather the processed form of gluten that comes in many forms of refined franken-foods. It is the refined grain, not the whole grain, that is causing problems.4 This is an important distinction when you’re choosing what to eat or what to feed your family.
Ultimately, gluten does not need to be avoided by everyone; however, considering alternative or naturopathic healthcare I would say it would be a good idea to avoid refined grains (including those containing gluten) due to the fact that refined grains are associated with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and many other disease conditions.4
Eating should be fun, tasty, nourishing and leave you full of life and energy. It should not be restrictive, depriving or leave you feeling sick, tired or moody. If you’re not feeling good after you eat, something is wrong. It could be an issue with a specific food, or it could also be that you need some digestive support. If you can’t figure it out on your own, get help! Don’t wait. We’d love to help you get to the bottom of your plate without gas, bloating or stomach pain. Let us know when you’re ready for a naturopathic consultation and to take your health to the next level!
1. Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy.; 2008.
2. Fiolet T, Srour B, Sellem L, et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: Results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ. 2018. doi:10.1136/bmj.k322
3. Sass JB, Colangelo A. European Union bans atrazine, while the United States negotiates continued use. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2006. doi:10.1179/oeh.2006.12.3.260
4. Gaesser GA. Perspective: Refined Grains and Health: Genuine Risk, or Guilt by Association? Adv Nutr. 2019. doi:10.1093/advances/nmy104