The media often mentions gluten-free living these days. ‘This actor went gluten-free and lost weight or an athlete eats gluten-free and performs better!’ In general, I think the media attention is good for those of us who really need to eat a gluten-free diet. However, a few misconceptions need addressing.
1. If you have celiac disease, eating a gluten-free diet is enough.
For some people that might be true. For a lot of others (probably even the majority) it’s far from the truth.
Celiac disease causes damage to the part of the intestine that absorbs nutrients. Without adequate nutrients, a whole lot of bad can happen. Anemia, osteoporosis, constant hunger, more injuries/aches/pains, nerve damage, infertility, food allergies, headaches, fatigue, hormonal imbalance, skin rashes, etc., etc., …given that you have to have nutrients to build and repair all aspects of your body, the symptoms can range extensively from person to person.
When you stop eating gluten, the damage stops getting worse, but it takes time to heal. If you developed food allergies, failing to remove those foods from your diet too (at least temporarily) slows or stalls healing. Once gluten and any food allergens are gone, it’s a matter of nutrient dense food, probiotic, probably some supplements, and time and patience.
2. Gluten-free eating is just a fad.
Not for those of us who have celiac disease. Companies have realized the opportunity for more money by marketing their products as gluten-free. Unfortunately, they may not realize that it doesn’t take very much gluten to make someone with celiac disease sick.
20 parts per million is accepted as the safe amount of gluten a person with celiac disease can eat without getting sick. Imagine breaking a cracker into a million pieces and then counting out 20 of those pieces…not a very big serving is it? If there’s more gluten than that, those of us with celiac disease end up having an autoimmune reaction that lasts for at least 6 months and symptoms that last for days to months. That’s why the certified GF symbol means so much to those with celiac disease.
3. Things like gluten-free soaps are ridiculous because you have to eat gluten to have a reaction to it.
My soap touches my lips. My toothpaste goes inside my mouth. When I wear lipstick, sometimes I lick my lips. I am allergic to wheat in addition to having celiac disease, but I’ve met others with the disease whose anti-bodies stayed elevated until they switched all the products they use to gluten-free. So gluten-free non-food products are anything but ridiculous.
4. Eating gluten-free is a great way to lose weight.
Being healthy, making nutrient-dense food choices, and living an active life is a great way to lose weight. If you’ve been starving because you can’t absorb nutrients and you finally start absorbing nutrients, it can massively change how hungry you are. However, eating gluten-free in and of itself is not a weight-loss diet.
5. Performance will improve if you avoid gluten.
Again, if you have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant, that is definitely true. Being able to get more nutrients from your food and not experiencing the negative reactions to gluten (like inflammation and autoimmune reactions) can do wonders.
Sometimes avoiding gluten means avoiding convenience foods and eating more nutrient-dense food. That can help performance for almost anyone. But as more companies jump on the gluten-free marketing bandwagon, going gluten-free can just mean changing from one sugary snack to a gluten-free sugary snack. Performance won’t improve if that’s all you do.
6. “I could never give up gluten! I mean, what’s left to eat if you take away foods with gluten?”
Meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, cheese, and plenty of other foods are gluten-free. For those who can tolerate other grains and take the time to learn to cook with them, you can even enjoy freshly baked bread and your favorite pasta dishes. You’d by no means starve if you avoid gluten.
Despite the abundance of non-gluten food, “I feel so sorry for you; I could never give up eating gluten!” is the phrase I’ve heard the most from other people when they learn I have celiac disease.
Eating gluten-free means: I’m not hungry 24/7 regardless of how much food I’ve eaten, all of my joints hurt a lot less, sections of my skin don’t blister and look like I was burned, I don’t get sick all the time, an intense workout doesn’t leave me sore for days, and I’m way less likely to experience the cancer that has taken the lives of several of my relatives. There’s a lot there to feel happy about, not sorry for.
What someone is really saying when they say they “could never give up gluten” is that they don’t want the inconvenience of choosing different foods and they don’t want to deal with how eating a special diet affects them socially or financially. They’d miss the taste of some of their favorite comfort foods and the traditions they’ve built around them.
You know what? Every person I know with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance feels, or at least initially felt, that way too. (For the record, there are very few comfort foods and traditions I’ve not been able to replicate gluten-free in a way that is at least as good as the original.)
It’s just that for those of us with celiac disease, gluten is a poison. No one I know, with the exception of addicts, would ever say, “I could never give up eating poison!” or “It only has a little poison in it so you should be fine, right?”
When you realize what gluten is doing to you, you find a way to give it up. Yes, even the person who eats bread with every meal. Feeling sick and tired all the time eventually is more uncomfortable than the discomfort of giving up gluten. You might test it a time or two or twenty, but eventually feeling good wins.
Besides, you can have your gluten-free caramel cheesecake and eat it too! (Just remember to eat more nutrient-dense foods most days! Almost all of the pics I used on this page were from a Thanksgiving feast, not our standard meals.)