Is gluten-free a fad or are there real health concerns surrounding gluten? While celiacs (people with extreme allergies to the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley) make up 1% of the population, many people have gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivities that show up in a host of symptoms as varied as digestive issues, autoimmune problems, depression, inflammation, and more. What makes the gluten-free “fad” discussion more complex is the fact that gluten comes in one of our favorite foods – wheat. We hardly ever eat wheat in its whole grain form but instead as refined flour in tons of processed goods from breads to pastas, cereals to pastries, crackers to tortillas. And our health is suffering as a result of not just the gluten, but everything that comes along with the processed food.
It’s human nature to want to find one reason or one solution for our health problems – whether it’s blaming sugar or salt for everything or taking a cure all pill. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. It’s complex and interdependent. Our bodies are not one size fit all either, nor are our health problems. That said, if you wanted to reclaim your health in one stroke, you could probably do it by eliminating gluten. Why? The #1 reason: it just makes it easier to eat and stick with a healthy, whole foods diet – something that can’t be said for excluding or including any other food. It’s at ground zero of our tangled web of health problems.
Here’s why going gluten-free and embracing whole foods is the panacea for everyone – and it just might shock you.
#1 – We’ve Gone Crazy For Junk
The standard American diet is highly processed. Roughly 62% of our diet is processed foods (the majority of which is ultra-processed). Half of our “food” can be bought at 7-Eleven. After that, our diet is 26% meat (and low quality at that), leaving only 12% for the whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds that we should be eating for the majority of our meals. As a result, we are gobbling down a lot of refined flour – namely ultra-processed wheat – at an alarming rate. It makes up our bagels, breads, cereals, pancakes and pastries at breakfast; our sandwiches, burritos, pastas, and pizzas at lunch and dinner; and is the main ingredient too in the crackers, cookies, pies, cakes and other baked goods we devour as snacks and desserts.
We are drowning in processed, refined wheat at every turn. Not only do these products come laden with gluten, they’re usually laden with sugar, salt and refined oils (aka bad fat). So not only are our diets out of balance – after all, whole foods only make up 12%, with half that being french fries – the foods we love and prioritize come packed with multiple ingredients that destroy our bodies. This can be from the blood-sugar spiking sugar and refined flour, the host of issues with gluten, or the gut-biome destroying impact of sugar, flour, and salt. And that’s just for starters.
Eating gluten-free is highly important if you have an allergy, intolerance or a sensitivity toward the stuff but when you eliminate gluten-containing foods and opt for a balanced diet of whole foods, you’ll automatically eliminate 90% of the foods wrecking your body.
#2 – The Cycle of Addiction
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It’s the chemical that makes your breads chewy and gives it elasticity. Incidentally, it also breaks down into morphine-like chemicals that bind to your brain’s opiate receptors to give you that warm, happy feeling when you eat bread, pasta, pizza, etc. (read Grain Brain).
Yeah, that’s why people always say they’d rather die than give up pasta or bread, that life isn’t worth living without cake and cookies. To me, these words just show the strength of the addiction. With all the miraculous types of dishes and ingredients in the world, somehow wheat has become the king and be all end all of food? Please. Let me not roll my eyes.
We love gluten and it’s in pretty much everything these days – even your shampoo. But let’s get back to the addicting property of gluten and what that really means in terms of our food consumption and health.
When we reach for the wheat (and lets face it, we don’t consume endless packages of gluten-containing rye and barley like we do wheat), we’re reaching for that feel good sensation we get when chowing down and gluten binds with our opiate receptors. This craving is an urge few can resist and leads us back for more. Unfortunately, wheat products are high in calories and the more we eat, the more calories we gain. Other foods like eggs or quinoa don’t do that to us. Instead, we feel full and our appetites are satisfied. With wheat, you usually want another cookie, another cracker, and if you haven’t had wheat in a day, you’ll start craving your pizzas, pastas, pancakes, and breads – all of which come lacking in essential vitamins and minerals that build your health but come loaded with blood-sugar spiking refined carbs and sugars that will make you insulin resistant with time, leading to diabetes and other metabolic syndrome disorders. Just for starters. Not only do we prefer these foods, we reach for them at the expense of everything else, including what is actually good for us.
Meanwhile, you’re not just addicted to the gluten in your wheaty delectables. Most times when you are eating wheat, you are also eating tons of sugar. Sugar is also highly addicting. My favorite study is one done on cocaine-addicted rats. When offered a choice of cocaine or sugar water, the already cocaine-addicted rats went for the sugar. Are humans better than rats at dealing with addiction? Well, I don’t know but it doesn’t seem like it.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough for your impulse control, the refined flour in your food has a higher glycemic index than table sugar, meaning it hits your blood stream like super sugar and spikes it into the stratosphere. Over time, this leads to insulin resistance, aka pre-diabetes, diabetes and other metabolic syndrome disorders. Incidentally, Alzheimer’s is now being considered a metabolic disorder or type-3 diabetes. But I digress. This flood of sugar from eating refined flour will put you on the refined carb roller-coaster all by itself – spiking your blood sugar and giving you a high, then crashing you to a low point where your cravings begin again, leading you to reach for more refined carbs to start the cycle all over again. Almost any refined flour will do this just as much as the sugar in all your processed foods. Wheat just happens to be the main flour vehicle in American food culture.
So in addition to having that wheat (aka gluten) craving all the time, we’re also needing our sugar fix – whether it’s from the refined flour or added sugar itself. Is it any wonder then we’re getting most of our calories from junk? Or seeing an obesity epidemic? Or experiencing a health crisis?
When you eliminate gluten and switch to whole foods, you eliminate the source of 99% of your cravings and the source of most of your ill health. After all, you’re eliminating blood-sugar spiking wheat but at the same time, usually taking out a host of sugary goods along with it, which tapers off your sugar addiction. Going gluten-free is useful that way. For recovering gluten and sugar addicts, it is one of the best ways to manage our addictions and stay on the wagon. If that’s a fad because people are using gluten as an excuse to eat better and switch to whole foods, I’ll take that every time. If they’re just eating junk that doesn’t happen to contain gluten, then they’re fooling themselves and running on the same old addiction tread wheel – whether they are or aren’t sensitive or allergic to gluten.
#3 – There Is No Free Lunch
Given our national opiate crisis, I’m not sure how the Just Say No (to gluten) campaign will work for our nation of gluten-loving, blood sugar spiked addicts. Gluten itself comes with a host of medical problems not just reserved for those allergic or sensitive to it. For a good read on it, check out the books Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Bottom line, gluten has effects on our nervous system separate from digestive and autoimmune issues, among others, from sensitivities and allergies.
But as mentioned above, gluten is just part of the problem. Our culture binges on processed food that is predominantly made up of wheat. Browse the major aisles of any grocery store and you’ll see that the snack food section of cookies, cakes and crackers are wheat-based. In your chips, gluten is there under the term maltodextrin. Maybe that’s why you can’t eat just one? The breakfast aisle is wheat and sugar drenched with its sugary, wheaty cereals, Poptarts, snack bars, pancake mixes and more. The baking aisle pays endless homage to dessert and blood sugar spiking confections (flour-based of course), not the cooking of real food. And as if the bakery wasn’t enough, we also get a separate bread aisle. The pasta options are exquisite and bleed into the frozen food aisle, taking up space next to an assortment of pizza and quick dinner, lunch or breakfast options that are heavily weighted toward wheat based foods, all loaded with extra sugar and refined fat.
None of this is real food. Real food nourishes, providing vitamins and minerals, live enzymes, phytonutrients, antioxidants, fiber and water content – all of which has been processed out of the foods taking up most of the space on our grocery shelves. If you’re lucky, some are enriched with a handful of vitamins and nutrients – but a handful only. Everything might taste great that you put in your cart, but it doesn’t contain a tenth of the nutrition your body needs and which can be found by eating primarily from the produce section.
You may say that little snack pack of Oreos only has 100 calories but it offers your body nothing in the way of nutrition but everything in the way of harm. A calorie isn’t a calorie. After all, the quality of nutrition differs from 100 calories of Oreos or 100 calories of apples or 100 calories of mussels.
But, we say, we only indulge a little.
No, actually we don’t. Again, 62% of our diet comes from processed foods heavy with blood sugar spiking refined carbs like flour and sugar. 26% is meat but this is mass-raised, grain-fed food that is lower in nutrition than what our ancestors ever enjoyed. Only 12% of our food comes from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. As mentioned before, half of this is french fries.
If anything, we are only indulging in good food a little. Mostly as an afterthought if at all. The result is poor health and an explosion in medical treatment to deal with the fallout of our eating choices and compulsions.
Eliminate gluten and start a whole foods diet and you will primarily eat only healthy food. The key words are “whole foods diet”. Anything less is again kidding ourselves. There is no free lunch when it comes to nutrition. To be healthy, we have to eat healthy. It’s as simple as that.
Going Whole Foods
Gluten problems are a very real issue for those of us with a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy to it. But gluten affects everyone’s nervous system. Perhaps most damaging is it’s addictive quality which leads us back to the wheat trough again and again. Unfortunately that wheat trough consists primarily of processed, refined flour that will spike our blood sugar – leading to metabolic syndrome disorders, among others – and mess with our gut biome which does so much for our immune and metabolic health on its own. On top of this wheat problem, that trough also contains a plethora of high sugar, high salt, high fat foods. When the refined carb roller coaster is going, we will reach for wheat or sugar to sate it – whichever is easiest, further entangling our wheat craving with our sugar craving.
In this way gluten is a problem in and of itself but it combines with other players to wreck our health. It’s sort of like being addicted to opiates, cocaine and speed, plus a few others to round out the gang. Just pointing at one player is only seeing part of the picture. Each enables the other and they usually come wrapped up in one delicious product that delights our senses. That craving and dependency for junk and processed food is the number one block to eating healthy. When you quit gluten, you ease your cravings for and dependency on most everything that is worst for you to a point.
The best answer to good health is to reclaim our plates, basing our meals on health, not what artificially lights up the receptors in our brains. Switching to whole foods, which are fruits, vegetables, beans, non-gluten containing whole grains, nuts and seeds, will provide everything we need. Before long our taste buds adjust as our bodies detox from the addiction. Healthy food begins to taste good again as our sugar pallets reset and our gluten withdrawal fades. And there is so much delicious food to be had everywhere. Once you quit gluten – and processed food – you leave room in your stomach and life for these quality goodies.
Go gluten-free and go whole foods. Your world and health will change for the better. Need a place to get started? Check out these articles:
- The 7 Day Gluten-Free Challenge
- How to Take Control of Your Health by Quitting the Standard American Diet for Real Food in 7 Steps
- 7 Easy Ways To Sneak More Beans Into Your Diet to Boost Your Longevity and Health
- What are Whole Foods?
- Going Gluten-Free or Cutting Down on Wheat? 10 Methods to Quash Those Cravings For Good Starting Today
Like this article? Please share it so that others can learn these health secrets and start living their best lives now.