If you suffer from a gluten allergy, you are not alone. In fact, 3 million Americans have celiac disease and 80% of Americans with this condition are undiagnosed.
Here’s how gluten allergies work: When the body can’t digest gluten properly, it harms your digestive system and gut. Your gut is the gateway to your overall health, and its main job is to deliver essential nutrients your body needs to function. Excessive gluten can damage the gut, which can cause diseases and other chronic health issues. This is why gluten-free diets are growing in popularity.
What Is a Gluten-Free Diet?
This is why gluten-free diets are growing in popularity. A gluten-free diet is eliminating foods that contain the protein gluten, including all types of wheat, rye and barley. This requires avoiding most breads, pastas, cereals, baked goods and other packaged foods.
Even if you don’t have a gluten intolerance, going gluten-free provides numerous health benefits. Thinking about trying it? Here are the top benefits of a gluten-free diet.
Benefits of Eating Gluten-Free
May Improve Digestion
For some people, gluten can be difficult to properly break down even if they don’t have an allergy to it. “Once gluten is removed from the diet, symptoms such as gas, bloating and indigestion may improve,” says Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, CNS and founder of Ancient Nutrition. “Inflammation in the gut can also get better, which translates to better protection against issues such as leaky gut syndrome, which can cause a number of body-wide symptoms.”
Stabilizes Blood Sugar and Controls Appetite
Gabby Geerts, RD at Green Chef, explains that our body needs nutrients found in grains like fiber and B-vitamins, which makes quinoa and buckwheat excellent gluten-free options. These are higher in fiber and protein than most grains, which help stabilize blood sugar levels and maintain fullness for longer.
Helps You Eat Less Processed Foods (and Can even Lead to Weight Loss)
Since gluten is found in many high-calorie snacks and unhealthy carbs, eliminating it steers you in a more nutritious direction.
“Quality meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish can potentially lead to weight loss, depending on the quality of your overall diet, and can be beneficial for metabolic health and blood sugar management too,” Dr. Axe states. “You might also find that you deal with less carb cravings and feel fuller when eating gluten-free whole foods, as opposed to packaged snacks made with flour and sugar.”
Increases Your Nutrition Knowledge
What’s the first thing you look at when you read the nutrition facts? According to research, sugar and calories are the top two items U.S. consumers look at. And while both are important, there’s much more to take into consideration.
“Going gluten-free forces you to read nutrition labels and get educated on food ingredients,” says Amy Davis, RD, LDN. “A lot of the time, simply being more aware of your food choices causes you to make better ones.”
Provides More Antioxidants that Can Help Fight Disease
A gluten-free diet naturally provides more antioxidants. When you get rid of gluten, you’re also getting rid of most processed foods. This will cause you to eat more fresh foods out of necessity.
Fresh, less processed foods offer more phytochemicals and antioxidants that can help us fight diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, says Registered Dietitian and MS Brenda Braslow.
May Boost Mental Health
Many people with gluten sensitivities experience mental health symptoms.
Dr. Stacie Stephenson, Certified Nutrition Specialist and CEO of VibrantDoc had patients who suffered from severe disorders like clinical depression, crippling anxiety, panic disorders, and even schizophrenia, which resolved or greatly improved when they removed gluten from their diets. “Because the symptoms aren’t digestive, many people, including doctors, don’t consider that gluten could be the culprit,” she says.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, Nutritional Psychiatrist, and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry agrees. A gluten-free diet may improve symptoms of anxiety because gluten intolerance and non-celiac gluten sensitivity have been associated with anxiety.
Although the overall science linking celiac disease and gluten sensitivity with anxiety is still conflicted, some studies show a clear connection. One study showed that after a year of following a gluten-free diet, patients suffering from celiac disease were less anxious. In her clinical practice as a nutritional psychiatrist, Naidoo always recommends that patients suffering from anxiety to get tested for celiac disease or to eliminate gluten from their diet to see if it reduces symptoms.
Can Prevent Nutrient Deficiencies
Cutting out gluten can prevent anemia, and osteoporosis which may arise due to malabsorption of iron and calcium, Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN explains.
May Improve Symptoms of ADHD
Research shows a clear relationship between gluten sensitivity and ADHD. One study found that people who had celiac disease were more likely to have ADHD, and that a six months gluten-free diet improved their symptoms. Although the exact reason why gluten sensitivity and brain dysfunction are connected is not fully understood, a 2005 study concluded that it was possible behavioral conditions (such as ADHD) may in part be caused by certain amino acids not being available to the brain until people stopped eating gluten.
For Dr. Naidoo’s patients suffering from ADHD, she suggests a three-month trial of a gluten-free diet to assess if symptoms improve.
Can Potentially Lead to a Healthier Microbiome (More Fiber!)
People following a gluten-free diet might be more keen to introduce fiber-rich whole foods that are naturally gluten-free such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, Dr. Naidoo explains. Variety and abundance in these fiber-rich foods are key for gut and overall health.
“The biodiversity in our gut microbiome is impacted by the biodiversity of foods we eat such as the colorful vegetables and fruit, with each of their unique polyphenols,” says Dr. Naidoo. “Fiber is essential for the growth of good bacteria in your gut (which directly affects your mood) and will also lower inflammation. You cannot get fiber from seafood or animal protein.”
While it’s well known that people with celiac disease can’t eat gluten, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is actually quite common. Dr. Stephenson explains gluten sensitivity exists on a spectrum, with celiac disease on one end, and no reactivity on the other. Many people are somewhere in between, so eliminating gluten can eliminate the problems that come from inflammatory reactions to eating gluten, even in people who don’t realize they have a problem with it.
Dr. Stephenson recommends a two to four-week test, during which you strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet. This will reveal whether giving up gluten will make you feel better. But no cheating or your results may not be reliable!