Whatever You Do, Don’t Eat Gluten-Free! (…and I have Celiac Disease)

WhateverYOU do DON'TEat Gluten-Free

That’s right! I’m a person with celiac disease and I am telling you NOT to eat a gluten-free diet.  Trust me, you will understand why as you keep reading.  So hang with me for a moment.

As I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, my doctor said all I have to do is follow a gluten free diet. The gluten-free diet is the only form of treatment for a person suffering from celiac disease.  So, if I was diligent in avoiding gluten, my gut would heal and I would be healthy again.  Or so I thought.

When it came to food (as a newly diagnosed person with celiac), my main motivation was to find substitutes for all the foods that I could no longer eat. I still wanted to enjoy cookies, cake, crackers and bagels.  Needless to say, my diet became calorie rich and nutrient poor, and as a result my overall health was declining.

But I am not alone. In fact, the majority of people suffering from celiac disease do not get better on a gluten-free diet.  According to a 2009 study in The Journal of Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in which 465 Celiac disease patients were looked at,  the study “found only 8% of adult patients reached “histological normalization” after following a gluten-free diet for 16 months, meaning their gut tissue completely recovered to that of a healthy person.” SCDLifestyle.com

The Standard American Gluten-Free Diet

The trouble with following a gluten-free diet, especially in the way of the Standard American Gluten-Free Diet, is that many of the foods labeled “Gluten-Free” are still very much processed and refined. Many manufacturers have simply switched from one grain (gluten containing grain, such as wheat/wheat flour) to another grain (gluten-free grain, such as rice/rice flour), as well as increasing the amount of sugar significantly (and we all know sugar feeds bad bacteria and increases inflammation).

“As gluten-free diets become more popular, food manufacturers are beginning to come out with gluten-free products. These products may be gluten-free, but that doesn’t necessarily make them healthy. Processed gluten-free foods can still be high in sugar and bad fats as well as artificial ingredients.” PrimalPal.net

Is A Gluten-Free Diet Healthy?

In short, yes. However, it depends on the types of gluten-free foods you choose.  There have been articles and studies that claim following a “Gluten-Free Diet” leads to low gut bacteria and nutrient deficiencies.  The problem with this claim is that it does not consider the types of gluten-free foods the people within the study were ingesting – mainly, the types of fermentable fiber.

Fermentable fiber is the main factor or mechanism that increases or decreases beneficial gut bacteria. Fermentable fiber is the type of fiber that is consumed by beneficial bacteria in the gut and colon therefore promoting more growth of beneficial bacteria.  So if a person is eating a gluten-free diet low in fermentable fiber, they are likely to have less beneficial gut bacteria.  Those eating a gluten-free diet high in fermentable fiber are likely to have higher levels of beneficial bacteria.

Chris Kresser, author of The Paleo Cure: Eat Right for Your Genes, Body Type, and Personal Health Needs — Prevent and Reverse Disease, Lose Weight Effortlessly, and Look and Feel Better than Ever, and practitioner of integrative and functional medicine, discusses the importance of fermentable fiber and its relationship to beneficial gut bacteria on an episode from Revolution Health Radio. He highlights the fact that when comparing wheat flour to rice flour, rice flour had 66% less fermentable fiber than wheat.  Of course, if you have celiac disease, you cannot go back on wheat for the purpose of increasing your fermentable fiber intake.  However, it becomes very easy to understand why someone following a gluten-free diet can end up having less beneficial bacteria in their gut,

“Now, if that person is gluten intolerant, it certainly may be better from an inflammatory or immune health perspective, but in terms of nutrient content, nutrient density, and fiber content, that gluten-free (we could call it maybe a Standard American Gluten-Free Diet, if you will, which means that it’s basically still a lot of processed and refined foods but just gluten-free varieties) would be no better than the version of that with gluten and maybe even worse from a fiber-gut-flora perspective if rice is the main substitute.” Chris Kresser

As Kresser continues on in the episode, he emphasizes the difference between consuming gluten-free whole foods in comparison to those following a gluten-free diet made up of processed and refined foods.

“But people who are on a Paleo-type gluten-free diet, which substitutes starchy tubers like sweet potatoes, plantains, yuca, taro, and all of those kinds of plants, and then lots of whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds for all of the refined-flour products like breads, crackers, and cookies, does that mean that that person who is on that really nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet is going to end up with lower levels of beneficial bacteria compared to someone who is eating a Standard American Diet? Of course not, that’s preposterous. In fact, the opposite is true because those tubers, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds are higher in fiber than wheat flour.” Chris Kresser

So What Is the Best Diet for Someone with Celiac Disease?

When you are diagnosed with celiac disease, your gut has been damaged by gluten and you will likely have nutrient deficiencies as result of the damage. Your main goal when consuming foods should be to provide your body and gut with nutrient rich foods like our ancestors.  Their diets avoided processed foods and worked naturally to feed our beneficial gut bacteria.

A person suffering from celiac disease needs to put out the fire (a.k.a. inflammation) in their gut. While somewhat restrictive in the foods that can be consumed, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet focuses on eating foods that are simple to digest and absorb while keeping the body properly nourished.

“The Specific Carbohydrate Diet™ is based on the principle that specifically selected carbohydrates, requiring minimal digestive processes, are well absorbed and leave virtually none to be used for furthering microbial overgrowth in the intestine. As the microbial population decreases due to lack of food, its harmful byproducts also decrease, freeing the intestinal surface of injurious substances. No longer needing protection, the mucus-producing cells stop producing excessive mucus, and carbohydrate digestion is improved. Malabsorption is replaced by absorption. As the individual absorbs energy and nutrients, all the cells in the body are properly nourished, including the cells of the immune system, which then can assist in overcoming the microbial invasion.” The simpler the structure of the carbohydrate, the more easily the body digests and absorbs it. Monosaccharides (single molecules of glucose, fructose, or galactose) require no splitting by digestive enzymes in order to be absorbed by the body. These are the sugars we rely on in the diet. They include those found in fruits, honey, some vegetables, and in yoghurt.” Specific Carbohydrate Diet

Once your gut gets back on track and is healthy again, a broader diet of wholesome fruits, vegetables, grass-fed beef, etc. can be added to your diet.  The Paleo Diet, as some people have referred to as the big brother/sister to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, would the next diet to adopt.

The Paleo Diet “is a wholesome and nutritious diet founded on whole foods like those our Paleolithic ancestors would have eaten. These foods are free from the artificial additives and genetic modification many processed foods contain.” Primal Pal

Your diet should be one of whole, nutrient rich foods. Of course, we cannot do this all in one day.  Making the change from our diets of the past to being gluten-free is not easy in the least.  However, if you learn the benefits to real foods and how they can effectively heal your gut; the change can be that much easier.

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