Why Do You Feel Better on a Gluten-Free Diet?

If you feel better on a gluten-free diet, the next question is, “why”. If you don’t ask “why” you will potentially miss something. Some people feel a dramatic change in their overall wellbeing or their digestion improves or their bone and joint pain disappears or the cloud of depression begins to lift. Some people will even lose weight. Yet others feel nothing; there is no change in their health and wellbeing at all. Why is that?

If you aren’t reactive to gluten, you wouldn’t feel any difference taking it out of your diet. However, if you react positively to a gluten-free diet, you are likely reactive to gluten. Described below are a few different conditions and reasons that people react to gluten.

  1. Celiac disease. The first thing to consider and rule out is celiac disease. Undiagnosed celiac disease has significant long term health risks including osteoporosis, depression, infertility and intestinal cancer. These are in addition to the risks of nutrient deficiencies. And celiac is genetic, so if you have it, your first-degree relatives should be screened for celiac. My next post will be all about how to test for celiac.
  2. Wheat allergy. Wheat allergies most often occur in children, who may outgrow the allergy by adulthood. Wheat allergy symptoms generally include digestive complaints, nasal congestion and/or skin rashes and hives. There are blood and skin tests for an IgE wheat allergy.
  3. Wheat sensitivity. The difference between allergy and sensitivity is the part of your immune system that is activated in response to the food. The type of food sensitivity test that I recommend for sensitivities measures your overall immune response to foods. These types of tests are particularly helpful in managing IBS, migraines, fibromyalgia and inflammatory conditions. Food sensitivity tests do not diagnosis or rue out celiac disease, so celiac must still be considered, particularly when there are signs of genetic linkage, nutrient deficiencies and/or related conditions to celiac disease.
  4. Fermentable carbohydrates. Gluten-containing foods contain fermentable carbohydrates that are difficult to digest and cause gas, bloating and abdominal discomfort in susceptible individuals. People with IBS should rule out celiac disease and then try a low FODMAP diet. They may respond favorably to a gluten-free diet simply because a gluten-free diet is low in fermentable carbohydrates. There are many other foods that contain fermentable carbohydrates and are limited on a low FODMAP diet.
  5. Non-celiac gluten-sensitivity. If you don’t have celiac, wheat allergy or sensitivity or GI discomfort that is worsened with fermentable carbohydrates, yet you still respond positively to a gluten-free diet, you may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Non-celiac gluten-sensitivity has many of the signs and symptoms of celiac disease, however, non-celiac gluten-sensitivity is not autoimmune nor is it genetic nor does eating gluten damage your gut lining, which means that you would not have nutrient deficiencies or the long term disease risks associated with celiac disease. There is not a test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it is diagnosed by a process of eliminating other conditions described above. Researcher Alessio Fasano predicts that up to 1 in 17 people have non-celiac gluten-sensitivity.
  6. Reduced processed and packaged foods. One global reason that you may feel better on a gluten-free diet is that a gluten-free diet MAY limit processed foods. A gluten-free diet MAY refocus your diet on quinoa, brown rice, gluten-free oats, sweet potatoes, beans and lentils in place of pasta and bread, in which case you would be cutting out tons of refined flour, sugar, processed fats and salt…, which would definitely make you feel better. However, this MAY NOT happen if you fill your gluten-free diet with processed gluten-free foods that tend to be higher in sugar and fat and lower in fiber compared to gluten-containing packaged foods.

Take-home points: Don’t take feeling better lightly. You want to continue feeling great, so you must explore why you are responding favorably to a gluten-free diet. And don’t kid yourself, gluten-free does not necessarily mean “healthier”. Gluten-free packaged foods are nutritionally worse than gluten-containing 100% whole grain options.

Material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition or health advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this website.

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