Gluten: Friend or Foe?

Lindsay Ford, MS, RD
Shift FUEL Head Coach

I am going to be completely honest here. When someone goes out of their way to tell me they follow a gluten-free diet, I want to cringe inside. Are you trying to seek some praise right now?!

Perhaps, but I probably won’t dish it out. Hearing this specific dietary practice makes me want to take a fresh baguette from our local bakery in Brevard and ship it via mail to their front door step. Try not to eat it. Oh wait, they “can’t” eat it. This begs the bigger questions…

1. What is gluten?
2. What is the reason to follow a gluten-free lifestyle?
3. Is gluten-free appropriate for me given my history, health condition, diagnosis, etc?

Loaf of Bread

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Those that have celiac disease or certain autoimmune disorders may not or should avoid gluten and gluten-rich foods all together due to the damage it would do to the intestinal lining. In fact, those that eat gluten-free typically have to avoid gluten in various products including shampoo, skin care, and more. It isn’t pretty and I have empathy for these individuals.

1. Gluten causes weight gain.
There are so many factors that play into weight gain the list could go on for pages.

  • Poor sleep habits
  • Chronic daily stress
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Sedentary habits
  • Losing muscle mass
  • Gut health
  • And more, can all influence someone’s weight.

In regard to nutrition and your food choices, there are so many factors that can contribute to weight gain and unfortunately gluten is on the weight-gain media train. To pick only on gluten, which numerous media outlets do, is ignorant and making a very broad statement without evaluating and analyzing the person as a whole.

Yes, gluten is found in many processed and packaged foods due to the fact that wheat is in just about everything. However, if one simply relies more on whole foods and less packaged items then I guarantee there is a health improvement, including potential weight loss if that is optimal for someone’s health.

Sometimes it isn’t about what we ARE consuming, sometimes it is about the healthy substitutions we make and how those foods will impact our health and weight goals.

For example, if Mr. Jim decides to change his every-day, five times a week Italian sub into two times a week and decides to have a hearty salad the other three days then Mr. Jim is most likely consuming more vegetables (he just happens to be consuming less gluten). One month later, Mr. Jim notices his pants fit a little better, his skin has improved and he has greater energy levels. A simple change turned into a positive thing.

Let’s not get crazy and say the positive results were because “he cut out gluten.”

2. Gluten is the anti-nutrient of all anti-nutrients.
I love how our food industry is always focused on a specific “nutrient” versus the sum of nutrients coming from real food. I am being sarcastic here if you didn’t notice.

From the 1970s-2000s it was and has been saturated fat. Today, I feel like gluten, sugar and dairy are the current enemies.

Gluten Free CheeriosPerfect example: we spend $5 dollars for a gallon of unsweetened, gluten-free almond milk that is basically diluted water loaded with ingredients I can’t even recognize. Where are the almonds?!

Gluten, sugar and dairy can be easy to pick on. For a while it was eggs. Many Americans, including myself, actively chose to consume only egg whites because we could get the protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol. We were looking at the pieces – not the entire egg. We decided to dismiss the vitamin B12 and choline found in the yolk. We dismissed how versatile and satisfying the egg is as well as how quickly they can be prepared in the mornings. We chose to evaluate single nutrients within the food versus looking at the egg as a whole.

We’ve now done this with gluten and gluten-rich foods. Take barley for example. It has gluten in it, but barley is also packed with B vitamins, magnesium, dietary fiber and protein. As a whole, barley goes well in soups, pilafs and works as a substitute to oats in the morning.

Here is when it gets complicated…most of us don’t consume gluten in the form of whole grains. We typically consume gluten in the form of a more refined or processed food. I completely understand consuming large volumes of pasta and bread on a weekly basis is slightly out of balance; however, if we pick on the gluten we are doing what we have done for years. How has this way of analyzing and evaluating food worked for us? It hasn’t and we need to take a step back from the gluten and start looking at foods as a whole.

3. Gluten is an allergen.
False. False. Triple False. Someone that can’t consume gluten or touch gluten has an extreme intolerance. Those with celiac disease or an autoimmune disease (e.g., lupus) are doing a huge disservice to their gastrointestinal tract if wheat, barley and rye are consumed in any shape or form [side note – not all with autoimmune need to be gluten-free, but it is worth getting tested].

If someone tells you are they are “allergic” to gluten they most likely just started following a gluten-free plan and have no clue what is truly going on with them and why they feel sick or sluggish. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, roughly 15 million Americans suffer from a food allergy. According to the CDC, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between the years of 1997 and 2011. This is a huge problem and I hope we can get to the root causes. Right now, the media and a lot of other health professionals are questioning the role of gluten and wheat.

Hey, I would love to get to the nitty gritty as well. Unfortunately, there are too many factors and game changers that gluten alone can’t cause so many food allergy concerns.

What about gut health and the status of the microbiome?

What about lifestyle and how active we are?

What about medications and how we want to fix so many symptoms with a pill?

I’m sure these things all play a role, along with processed foods and gluten. So I may have gotten a little off track with the whole gluten and allergy connection, but lets not jump on board of the Allergic To Gluten Bandwagon. Figure out what is truly going on before you dive into your own conclusions.

4. Everyone should eliminate gluten from the diet.
Over the past few months I have read the following books:

  • The Microbiome Solution
  • The Obesity Code
  • Eat Dirt and Eat Fat
  • Get Thing

To name just a few. All great reads. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of doctors feel it necessary for most people to eliminate gluten from the diet. Shoot, they even make me question my own food decisions. I had to take multiple moments and pauses and remind myself that this is nothing more than continued education to better understand mindsets, various health conditions and more. They weren’t talking to Lindsay specifically. I had to remember these books are money- making projects. These books are most likely speaking to people who are ill and are trying to make positive changes in their daily meal choices.

This is the time to note CONTEXT and LANGUAGE are two important pieces missing in the puzzle. When I refer to context I am regarding someone’s life, history, family history and relationship with food. If someone has a history of an eating disorder do you really think it is his or her best interest to completely cut out gluten? NO. Absolutely not.

Now I’m pissed because I’ve seen this far too often. Lets take the single father of two who is working two jobs. Do you think eliminating gluten from his life is realistic? No.

Language is another important piece. I truly believe how we communicate and teach is vital for the listener and consumer. Instead of saying, “eliminate gluten from the diet and here is why….” lets adjust this and say “I would encourage you to consume 2-3 non-starchy vegetables at both lunch and dinner.”

Reframing nutrition recommendations into something positive is something I feel a lot of these books miss. At home, I would encourage you to change the mindset of “can’t eat this” to “I can eat…”. I promise your relationship with food will most likely heal much sooner compared to the negative can’t way of thinking.

5. Gluten is the missing link to all of your dietary and weight gain problems.
It can be very tempting to kick something out from your daily food choices and decide it will fix the problem. I’ve known people to cut out dairy. They are missing out on probiotic rich yogurt, nutrient rich kefir and satiating local cheese.

I’ve known a lot of folks that try to eliminate all white foods. They are dismissing cauliflower, onions, garlic and more. Please use COMMON SENSE.

If you aren’t sleeping and you are stressed to the max, IT ISN’T GLUTEN.

If you are sitting more than 8 hours a day and you keep forgetting your gym clothes, IT ISN’T GLUTEN.

If you forget to eat breakfast and lunch and graze on food from 4 pm – 9 pm, IT ISN’T GLUTEN.

I think I’ve made my point.

So it may seem like I am obsessed with gluten and everyone should have a free-for-all. Some of you may be thinking, “Wow, I can eat all the pasta and bread I could ever want.”

This is not exactly what I am trying to get at, nor is it the objective of this piece.

Guess what…

  • All starchy and non-starchy vegetables: gluten- free.
  • All whole fruit: gluten-free.
  • All animal proteins: gluten-free.
  • All plain dairy: gluten-free.
  • All plain/raw nuts and seeds: gluten-free.
  • All plant cooking oils: gluten-free.
  • Numerous whole grains (e.g., quinoa): gluten-free.
  • All plain beans and legumes: gluten-free.
  • All herbs and majority of pure ground spices: gluten-free.Nutrient Dense Foods

Relying on whole foods, unprocessed foods and cooking more often will naturally decrease the amount of gluten in your daily life without you even trying. You think this has benefits? You bet…especially the cooking.

In regard to an appropriate amount of gluten in your life, there is nothing wrong with having a piece of bread every now and then. Having a piece of gluten-rich chocolate cake for your birthday is okay. Consuming pasta from your local Italian restaurant is okay.

Again, reframe your thinking into something positive and see what happens.

Adjust your nutrition to focus on the whole food versus just the nutrients within.

Build a healthier relationship with food by getting in the kitchen and trying out new recipes.

Gluten will continue to get the media attention, but don’t let it fool you any longer.

Mic drop.

Jason Donaldson

Jason Donaldson is a Human Performance Coach who opened the first CrossFit™ affiliate in Western Australia in 2007. Jason has been a team member since 2011 and plays an integral role in SH//FT. As Director of //Performance, Jason oversees all coaching and training programs along with the subscription management. Jason is a lifetime athlete having played many sports, including two decades of Australian Rules Football. He has completed many endurance events such as trail runs, OCRs, cross-country mountain bike races and off-road duathlons.


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