Fad diets make me crazy. The Cookie Diet, the Werewolf diet (these are really a thing), the meat covered in meat and butter diet. They all make me cringe. My approach to healthy eating is simple – eat whole foods, avoid processed, eat mostly plants. However, there is one popular food trend that I believe is worth a second look; this is going gluten free. Not only have I experienced improvements in my personal health but I’ve seen many patients improve a wide array of symptoms by cutting gluten from their diets. I believe that the popularity of this dietary approach has grown not only because of the beneficial effects for weight loss but because it makes people feel better; and there is a growing body of research to back this up.
Gluten is a protein found in products such as wheat, barley, and rye. In the past, a gluten free diet was solely recommended as a treatment for people with celiac disease. People with celiac disease have a severe reaction to gluten which causes inflammation in the intestines and can cause symptoms such as weight loss, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. However, in the recent years, many people who do not have celiac disease are finding relief from many conditions by cutting gluten out of their diet. Researchers are discovering that this subset of patients may be suffering from another gluten related disease called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) can have a multitude of symptoms related to gluten intake without any blood markers that identify them as gluten intolerant. In fact, there is no specific diagnostic test for NCGS, which can make it difficult for physicians to discover and treat it. What’s more, common to this disease are complaints of fatigue, low energy, and foggy thinking which are non-specific and can be present in many other disease states. A red flag for NCGS should be raised in any patient with these symptoms and accompanying gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, cramping, constipation and/or diarrhea. Other symptoms where NCGS should be considered include chronic skin rashes or acne, behavioral issues, chronic headaches, and joint pain.
The treatment for non-celiac gluten sensitivity is the same as for celiac disease – a complete eradication of gluten from the diet. If I have a suspicion that one of my patients has gluten sensitivity, I will usually recommend a trial elimination of all gluten containing foods for at least 6 weeks; if there is no improvement in symptoms within that time, they may resume eating gluten with reckless abandon. More commonly, however, most of my patients that adopt a gluten free diet feel a lot better (more energy, less GI symptoms), look better (weight loss and better skin), and their numbers look better too (cholesterol comes down and blood pressure improves). As it turns out, going gluten free is a great way to lose weight and should be considered in any patient with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
Although it can feel like a major undertaking to go completely gluten free (gluten is hidden in a lot of different foods!), it is much simpler now that this diet has become so popular. There are many gluten free products in most grocery stores and many gluten free options in most restaurants. Also, there are tons of websites, blogs, and books dedicated to going gluten free. If you feel that you might have symptoms related to gluten sensitivity, try eliminating gluten for 6 weeks and see how you feel. The results might surprise you!
Here is a list of some of my favorite gluten free (GF) resources:
- Minimalistbaker.com (not all GF but many GF options; plant based)
- Ohsheglows.com (not all GF but many GF options; plant based)
- “Wheat Belly” – author William Davis MD
- BookofYum.com (GF, vegetarian blog)
Dr. Aimee Warren