Is the Gluten-Free Diet Really Healthy?

Thursday Nov 7 | BY |
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French baguette

For many, this popular diet will only make symptoms worse.

The rise in popularity of the gluten-free industry is simply staggering. SPINS, a market research firm that covers the natural product industry, reported a total of $12.4 billion in gluten-free sales in the 52 weeks leading up to August 4, 2012. This is a 1,340% increase from 2007’s reported annual sales of $926 million. (1)

Sure, awareness in general has naturally led to some of the growth in the gluten-free sales, but there is has been an alarming increase of people with celiac disease in the United States. Recent estimates put the prevalence at 1 out of every 133 people. (2)

Also, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) officially became a recognized medical problem earlier this year, which only adds fuel to the gluten-free fire. Scientists and medical experts have been saying for years that gluten causes all kinds of health issues in the digestive tract, brain and immune system. (3)

While I strongly agree that gluten is very toxic for a great majority of the population, research indicates that 60% of celiacs who are on the gluten-free diet are still sick(4). And there is some research that’s showing “healthy” people who eat a gluten-free diet end up not as healthy as they were (5).

So what should we make of this paradox? Below I’ll show you why I think the gluten-free diet isn’t a very good diet for anyone to follow.

When Gluten-Free Isn’t Enough

The problem begins when this billion-dollar industry markets gluten-free food as “healthy” and “good for you.” Not only that, but many doctors are using it as a standard prescription for people with digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, or diarrhea.

A number of people with digestive problems still struggle with health issues, however, even after going gluten-free. To be frank: most of the gluten-free food we find on the grocery store shelves is just well-disguised junk-food.

While the gluten-free diet does remove the biggest offender (gluten), it doesn’t address many of the problems that drive symptoms like constipation, occasional loose stools, bloating, gas or stomach pain.

Here are some more subtle signs and symptoms that the gluten-free diet isn’t working for you:

  • Nausea
  • Liver and biliary tract disorders
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pale, foul-smelling stool
  • Iron-deficiency anemia unresponsive to iron therapy
  • Fatigue
  • Arthralgia (joint pains)
  • Tingling numbness in the legs
  • Sores inside the mouth
  • Skin rashes/acne
  • Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
  • Unexplained infertility or recurrent miscarriage
  • Osteopenia or osteoporosis
  • Anxiety or depression

All of these signs and symptoms should alert you that your current gluten-free diet isn’t healing your problems. And the kicker is that it’s not just that you might need more than dietary intervention, but that the gluten-free diet as prescribed by western medicine might be causing your symptoms to get worse.

Two Ways The Gluten-Free Diet Fails

The first way the gluten-free diet fails is by allowing other foods that contain gluten-like proteins. These dangerous proteins are called prolamines. Prolamines are one of the plant’s best ways to stay alive. They are a defensive mechanism to discourage predators like us from eating them.

What’s common is that food companies remove wheat and then put in its place:

  • Corn (Zein) (6)
  • Oats (Avenin) (7)
  • Brown Rice (Orzenin) (8)

These foods all contain the same toxic proteins that drive up inflammation and create a leaky gut, which contributes to all the health problems mentioned above.

The second way that a gluten-free diet fails to help is through the increased sweeteners used in the products. Whether it’s organic sugars or GMO sugars, the gluten-free products on the market are loaded with them. This creates two main issues for those who have chronic health problems. The first is that all this extra sugar increases gut dysbiosis, which is likely what happened to those healthy people. The really bad part is this increases the risk of gut problems like Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth or Yeast overgrowth. Second, all the extra sugar contributes to hormone dysregulation and insulin resistance, both of which will only cause health issues to get worse.

When the Specific Carbohydrate Diet Might Help

Adopting the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, customized to address an individual’s issues, will remove the rest of the foods contributing to these problems and allow the body to begin healing. Anytime a food is eaten and not completely digested, it will only feed inflammation, gut dysbiosis and leaky gut.

Now, you’re might be left wondering what exactly are…

The Differences Between the Gluten-Free Diet and Specific Carbohydrate Diet?

Restricted Foods on the Gluten-Free Diet:

  • Wheat, Barley and Rye

Restricted foods on Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)

  • All grains (including all pseudo grains)
  • All sweeteners except honey
  • All predominantly starchy foods
  • All dairy (except that which is fermented to remove lactose)
  • Most processed food products (due to added chemicals, gums and sweeteners that can cause reactions)

As you can see, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet removes many more foods than the gluten-free diet, but all of the removed foods can and do cause health issues for many people with digestive heath issues.

A healthy diet is one in which the food eaten is completely digested, nutrients are absorbed, and wastes are excreted without raising inflammation or causing immune reactions. It is much less about the foods allowed and all about what can actually be fully digested. Many times, the best way for those with digestive issues to completely recover their health is to follow the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.

SCD Isn’t a Forever Thing

I’m not suggesting that SCD has to be a permanent diet change. Please think of it as more of a powerful therapeutic tool designed to help those with digestive issues heal. As people conquer and resolve the underlying health problems causing their digestive issues, I encourage them to eat anything they want as long as isn’t detrimental to their health.

If you’re in the midst of recovering your health and trying to overcome digestive issues or many of the other problems listed above, I’d suggest you give the SCD a try. Test it for 30 days and see if it improves your problems. Our Surviving to Thriving eBook gives you the step-by-step directions to make it easy along with meal plans, cooking tips and best practices for the diet.

Steve Wright

Steve Wright

Steve Wright – is an electrical engineer turned health engineer. Back in 2009, he was struggling with IBS symptoms, weight gain, acne and other severe health issues. When conventional medicine didn’t help, his friend Jordan Reasoner got him to start the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. In just a few days his IBS symptoms were almost completely gone.

Since then, he’s focused on getting as healthy as possible and teaching others what works to get to the root causes of digestive problems, hormone dysregulation, and detox issues. He writes and helps people 1-on-1 over at scdlifestyle.com. Steve lives in Boulder, CO and likes to have fun while helping people poop better.

31 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Brandt says:

    Ugg… I always cringe when I read articles like this that don’t specify a good gluten free diet from a bad gluten free diet. Yes! gluten free is good for you but there are other things that also can cause problems. Its like you assume that everyone who goes gluten free uses crappy gluten free substitutes. Just remove those things from your diet that contain or would traditionally contain gluten.

    • Judith says:

      I am not sure Brandt and I read the same article. I certainly read enough information to be able to develop a diet for myself that would avoid the traps and pitfalls of most commercial gluten-free products. I found this article very informative and plan to use the Specific Carbohydrate Diet guidelines to develop a diet specifically for me. I really appreciate the information in this article.

    • Gigi says:

      I didn’t get at all that the assumption was that everyone who goes gluten free uses “crappy gluten free substitutes.” Rather, I think Mr. Wright is trying to convey a much bigger picture message, namely how to combat inflammation by avoiding inflammatory foods including most, if not all grains, as well as sugar and dairy. My husband has been totally gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free for well over a year for a disease he’s fighting. As a result (and welcome bonus!) the seasonal allergies that he’s suffered from for over a decade are completely gone as well as multiple skin problems such as seborrheic dermatitis and rosacea, all of which can be classified as inflammation. He also sleeps better and rarely gets headaches any more. In other words, it’s not just the gluten, (wheat, barley and rye) but the other highly inflammatory foods that people often think are safe, that perpetuate the very ailments they are hoping to heal in going gluten-free.

    • Jen says:

      I agree with Brandt. The title of this article is somewhat misleading and irresponsible. It’s true, there are many people out there who are following a poor nutrient deficient albeit gluten free diet however this does not mean that these same people should now follow the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Removing gluten, yes simply gluten, from the diet has been clinically proven by leading scientific journals to reduce so many risk factors to degenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and significantly improves the fate of those in the autistic spectrum.
      The point is that removing gluten is only the first step but it’s an important one. The title “Is the Gluten-Free Diet really Healthy” is not the real question; it is what does a healthy gluten-free diet look like?

  2. Lee Wenzel says:

    I so appreciated this article about gluten free products. So many people I know are going gluten free and are suggesting it to me. Has or does anyone mention what is sprayed on the grains to keep out the bugs and rats while in the storehouses? Can the gluten be the real culprit or what’s in the processing and storage units? I guess we have to get back to eating the foods as grown, yet even they are sprayed with all kinds of pesticides, preservatives and colorants to keep them looking fresh and bug free. I have been soaking fresh fruits and vegetables in charcoal water and even have had to take charcoal (activated carbon) to help stomach problems and digestive irregularities. It does remove toxins from the body. It’s the only natural substance that can help besides lots of pure water and fiber!
    Lee

    • Liz says:

      That’s interesting Lee. In what form do you take the activated charcoal and how often? Liz

    • Jason says:

      Charcoal is a good idea, Lee, but it’s not the only natural substance that can help detoxify; there are many of them, including clays (like calcium bentonite and montmorillonite) and zeolites. 🙂

  3. Funny i had blood test ,and was told i was allergic to gluten.I went on strict diet,didn’t help much .I had a feeling it was not just gluten,but G.M.O.

  4. Jack says:

    Book of mormon doctrine and covenants 89:14
    all grain is for man … Nevertheless wheat is for man and corn for the ox…
    All grains need to be sprouted.

  5. Thanks, Steve for your insight on this issue. I work with clients every day who are so confused about what they should and should not eat. And then I had a client e-mail me today the the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (notoriously supported by every major processed food manufacturer in the U.S.) states that the gluten free diet has no evidence of improving health and in fact may be harmful. It is no wonder the general public is confused! Gluten free is an important first step for many, but it is only a first step and we certainly want to avoid replacing the bread with GF junk food! Thanks for the blog.

  6. Brad says:

    As is the norm this is simply an article written by someone that has not researched or evaluated the gluten free environment and its root causes. Yes a “traditional” gluten free diet may have underlying issues, however if you are truly following a healthy lifestyle and eating right ie; fruits, nuts, organic meats and limited dairy you will remain healthy and happy. We have been happily gluten free for 7 years and not had any problems other than when ignorant individuals cross-contaminate foods and try to feed them to you. Do your own research and eat what feels right, don’t just take someones opinion for fact.

  7. Rebecca Cody says:

    For healing the gut, an even better way is Natasha Campbell-McBride’s diet designed for that purpose, the induction phase of the GAPs diet. Following her induction diet heals the gut more quickly, then adds back most of the foods from the SCD diet.

    Even with this help, most people over 40 need more stomach (hydrochloric) acid, and often adding that in supplement form, Betaine Hydrochloride, or even adding a bit of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to water with meals helps digestion tremendously.

  8. Cathy says:

    It took me two years to figure out that baking gluten-free with starchy substitutes doesn’t help much to heal. There are so many other factors, like omitting dairy, GMO foods, and a big one for me has been fermented foods and drinks. I ferment apples (which pulls out toxins from the body – apples that is) adding apple pie spice WOW is it awesome (youtube has a video on how to do it – SO simple). There are so many yummy drinks one can make, like pure lacto-fermented apple/grape juice (best to juice from fresh fruit) – whey in it is optional. I understand that the book “Nourishing Traditions” has lots of ideas for fermenting foods. These foods, along with lots of fresh fruit, has normalized my pH and corrected my irritated bowel. I’m glad I chose not to walk into the GI doctor’s office and be told again that “everybody has candida.” By the way my candida problem is gone. If I was diagnosed with something like microscopic colitis I was told that I would be given a drug (only to reduce the symptoms and probably toxifiying my body on it forever).

  9. Melissa says:

    Bottom line is don’t eat processed foods. Make your own flax based crackers; buy a dehyrator and try raw foods. Transitional foods. GMOs in general has been linked to the rise of almost every health concern that is now on the horizon: diabetes, autism, ADD, infertility, chronic disease, cancer, and just about every digestive disorder you can imagine. Until we thoroughly get out from underneath the Monsanto grain “web 0 death strain’ … there will be a few more super bugs every year. Eat organic when you can; wash your veggies – i wash mine in essential oils of lime and lemon or orange or grapefruit extract; Clean your apt/house with organic cleaners or just use baking soda and white vinegar; don’t breathe in heavy toxic glues from new car smells or carpet glue … or migraine headaches will follow. Lobby your governments to label GMOs and don’t take no for an answer – studies report that we are the first generation of north americans who may live less years than our parents and grandparents … on the other side, take time out to be peaceful; learn to meditate and appreciate nature and what you have to offer. Be Well.

  10. Andrew Esa says:

    I wonder,if many that suffer from gluten intolerance are perhaps experiencing the symptoms of candida. Many of the foods you’ve listed, can cause problems with that health issue. I have found that sugar in various forms has effected my health in so many ways. Even though,I’ve eaten healthy kinds,such as, fruit, honey,date,and maple sugar, as I’ve aged, the symptoms have gotten worse according to my sugar intake. Candida seems to foster a dependency on sugar,almost like an addiction,which is very difficult to control,especially when one is trying to stick to a limited anti-candida diet. I would appreciate your thoughts on this topic, Kevin.

  11. Seitan is healthy. If you eat a properly balanced diet.

    I wrote an article almost but the f***** page swallowed it. Anyway, why am I concerned so much about what other people eat? Eat garbage for what I care. If you don’t know how to use your mind to separate good from bad who am I to judge anybody. Just keep doing it.

  12. Mary says:

    Great article! I learned some things and have always known that just going gluten free isn’t the
    panacea for most people.

    I was curious about what you meant by “psuedo grains”. Are you talking about
    quinoa? Would like the answer to that…..Thanks!

  13. Micah says:

    How about grains from a reliable organic source that are sprouted. Surely this would give them more of a nutritional profile and make them easily digestible. Cultured and sprouted grains, nuts and seeds might be the way to go!! Enzymes aid the digestive process and sprouting your food activates the enzymes.

  14. Julie says:

    Hi Steve,
    That is a VERY BAD TITLE to a well written article. There are too many people not going gluten free that should be. A title like this scares people who are already nervous about going gluten free, thinking they aren’t getting the nutrients, when going gluten free and eating as we should creates just the opposite as most gluten intolerant people are lacking in proper nutrition as it does not allow the absorption if you are gluten intolerant/ It should be renamed something like “Is going gluten free enough” or similar. I have gone through the whole thing, but instead of going whole hog to where you don’t know what is the real cause and easier way is the elimination diet. Try first going gluten free, with real foods. Once you find out it is gluten, but may be other things as well, eliminate them one by one for a few weeks or month. That will help you figure out much more quickly and more easily what is really bothering you.

  15. Lynn Klein says:

    Steve,
    Your article raises some very good points, for which I thank you. GF has become a big umbrella cure, but as you point out so clearly, there is much, much more going on inside the gut.

    Organically grown, as fresh as possible, vegetables and properly prepared dairy, and grains are far more likely to be properly digested than anything that a person can buy in a package or box of a shelf.

    I recommend Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” for an excellent guide to proper preparation of natural foods. Lactic acid fermented foods, and soaking of grains before cooking does wonders for our internal health.

  16. Joanne says:

    I have celiac and am much better since I stopped eating wheat, barley and rye. The benchmark for celiac is flattened or missing villi that line the intestine per biopsy. There function is to absorb nutrients. They were gone and after being gluten free/no wheat for 8 months, the second biopsy revealed that the villi returned, as did my health. The acid reflux problem is gone, abdominal pain has gone and digestion is nothing but easy.
    The question begs..why now? What has happened to the wheat that causes such a severe reaction in the small intestines that strips the lining so nutrients are no longer absorbed….a precursor to all sorts of illnesses including osteoporosis, thyroid problems and eventually dementia. All of these illnesses are on the rise.
    It seems to me that having chemical companies directly involved in our food supply isn’t such a good idea. The wheat was genetically modified back in the 80s or 90s. People are experiencing more digestive problems. It used to not be like this. Is there some connection?
    Does anyone know about any long term medical research completed to prove that the new dwarfed wheat is safe? Who did the studies? Were they done by an independent agent? What has happened to the “amber waves of grain?”

  17. Mark says:

    I think the GLUTEN thing is a the current healthy “craze”. There are only a few, RARE occasions where people will have natural allergic reactions to gluten. For the most part, our bodies have become adapt to this diet, especially western civilization.

    A better way to stay healthy is to have a well balanced diet and regular exercise. You don’t have to go to the extremes and eliminate certain foods.

    I run a sports fitness site at http://www.increase-vertical-jump.org/ if you want to learn more.

    • @Marc – I wish it were so but it’s unlikely what you are saying is true. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity is now recognized by the medical community. As other experts who study this for a living have said it’s unlikely that the genetic pressure has been strong enough to allow the majority of humans to fully be able to process wheat.

      @Brandt – True not everyone eats a processed food diet, but the majority do. And worse is that there are plenty of people with other food intolerances that need to be eliminated for them to begin complete healing. I pointed those out above and the gluten-free diet does not talk about this at all.

      @Julie – Thanks for the feedback. I agree more people should likely be avoiding gluten. HOWEVER the point is that gluten is not the only issue here. And most people get their info from conventional medicine and commercials which are doing their best to sell them on processed junk food versions of GF diets.

      @Casey – You are correct. GAPS started by adopting SCD guidelines and then making further tweaks and adding in extra protocols to help with the autism spectrum

  18. Great post, this confirms some issues I have had with the gf diet I am currently on, I am also dealing with candida. There is a diet now that helps overall to deal with candida and it is very similar to this Specific Carbohydrate diet. I have tried it a couple days and plan to continue, thanks again! DJW

  19. Katie says:

    I have been on the SCD for 13 years now. Before I went on it I was about to have my rectum removed and have a colostomy. I had a huge rectal abscess. I have Crohn’s disease within 6 months I had healed a real miracle. I am fine as long as I stay on diet. I would give the diet 3 months not 10 days. That is not nearly long enough

  20. Casey says:

    It sounds like the GAPS diet to me.

  21. Lynne Forbes says:

    I’d like to know more about soaking fruits and vegetables in charcoal water to rid them of chemicals and pesticides.
    Thanks

  22. I do accept as true with all of the ideas you’ve presented to your post.

    They are really convincing and will definitely
    work. Still, the posts are very quick for starters. Could you
    please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

  23. Linda says:

    Go to www:glutensummit.org and listen to 29 hours of world wide experts in the field discussing the various aspects and approaches to the way underdiagnosed problems of CD and non celiac gluten sensitivity. Nov 11-19. Free. It will open your eyes and is filled with valuable info.

  24. linda says:

    CORRECTION: Glutensummit.com

  25. How does one make this “charcoal water”? Thanks and Namaste

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