Should You Go Gluten-Free?

More and more Americans are gluten-free these days—about 1.6 million of us, a recent Mayo Clinic study found. But what is gluten? And is it bad for us?

Gluten hides in processed foods

Gluten is a protein you’ll find in most grains—wheat, barley, rye, and more. It’s the “glue” that makes dough stretchy. Most starchy foods are full of gluten. Bread, pasta, crackers, and cereal are all usually made with gluten-rich wheat flour.

But gluten is sneaky. Manufacturers slip it into all kinds of processed foods you wouldn’t suspect. It hides in canned soup, soy sauce, salad dressing, and beer, to name just a few.

What does gluten do to our bodies?

“Gluten is fairly indigestible in all people,” says Daniel Leffler, M.D., an assistant professor medicine at Harvard Medical School and a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “There’s probably some kind of gluten intolerance in all of us.

Why? Well, to our bodies, grain is still a newfangled novelty, “foreign to the Stone Age diet” that we adapted to eat, says David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. Humans have only been eating grain for about 12,000 years—not long enough to really adapt to digest it.

When gluten-sensitive people eat gluten, their bodies see it as an invader and mount an immune assault. The gut bears the brunt of the attack—you might suffer from bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation. Doctors now know that the rest of your body can go immune-haywire, too, according to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. You might develop leg numbness, joint pain, osteoporosis, or anemia. You might feel depressed, foggy-brained, or develop symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—all from eating gluten.

What about celiac disease?

If you’re dealing with these symptoms, your doctor will want to do a blood test to rule out celiac disease. That’s a more dangerous type of gluten intolerance (people with celiac disease must stick to lifelong gluten-free diets or risk malnutrition and fatal cancers) that strikes an estimated one in 133 Americans. (Note that the blood test has flaws—including a high rate of false negatives. You might want to ask your doctor for the newer genetic test for Celiac, which is more accurate.)

Rather than being true celiac, far more of us are simply gluten-sensitive, without celiac disease—about 18 million Americans, the University of Maryland center estimates. Unfortunately, there’s no test to check for this. The only way to tell if you’re gluten-sensitive is to quit eating gluten and see if your symptoms improve.

Can I do the Fast Metabolism Diet gluten-free?

Absolutely. In fact, it’s easy. The Fast Metabolism Diet already ditches the leading gluten culprit: wheat. Instead, you can enjoy a variety of gluten-free grains—brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and gluten-free oatmeal are all safe, to name a few. Be sure to check out my other blog posts for gluten-free recipes.